Assessments

Boulevard Dreams

The issue carrying the most emotional freight in Rhode Island these days isn’t the scarcity of good jobs or the state’s fragile finances, important as those things are. The issue that resonates emotionally is the 6/10 connector.

The 6/10 is a two-mile stretch of multi-lane highway that connects a pair of interstates running through Providence and its suburbs. It carries 97,000 cars every day. Nobody likes it, and there’s no reason why anybody would. It’s a series of 11 decrepit bridges held up with ugly wooden and metal braces and buttresses. Nine of the bridges are more than 50 years old; seven of them have been labelled structurally deficient. The state, which owns the 6/10, has been talking about how to replace it for the past three decades. READ MORE

The Reality of Mayors’ Economic Promises

Nearly half of America’s 100 biggest cities are electing mayors this month, and most of the winners will come floating into office on a tide of promises, some of them achievable and some so ambitious that the candidates themselves don’t have a clue how to pull them off.

Many will have vowed to be “education mayors” -- school reformers who will generate test results so much improved as to make their communities magnets for the affluent residents they are competing to attract. Candidates make these vows despite decades’ worth of evidence that there is little a mayor can do to produce dramatic educational improvement over the course of a term in office. READ MORE

For Economic Development Gold, Listen to the Music

Economists and public policy experts have been telling us for decades that sports stadiums are a terrible investment for governments to make with taxpayers’ money. These expensive buildings almost never bring in the windfall of jobs and local business development that team owners promise; within a few years they are white elephants and the sponsoring localities are struggling to pay off many millions of dollars in debt.

So the argument goes. Research from a wide variety of places over a long period of time seems to bear it out. The mammoth sports palaces built in the 1970s and 1980s have failed to meet the grandiose expectations that surrounded them. Many are already being replaced. READ MORE

Will Civics Education Make People Better Voters?

David Broder, who died in 2011, was arguably the most admired political reporter of his generation, especially among his journalistic peers. He combined excellent judgment, unflagging energy and a fundamental decency that nobody who knew him could miss. I was a member of the fan club myself.

But one element of Broder’s persona always puzzled me: He had an unshakable belief in the ultimate wisdom of the American electorate. “The voters,” he often said, “are way ahead of the politicians.” In the heat of an election season, while other reporters were trading gossip with consultants and campaign managers, Broder would trudge down the residential streets of obscure American towns, knocking on doors and asking ordinary citizens for their opinions. He always emerged from these forays with his populist sympathies intact. READ MORE

Urban Planners’ New Enemy

On a slow afternoon back in 2005, I found myself thumbing through one of the oddest books I had ever come across. It was a 733-page treatise on parking by Donald Shoup, an economist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who had devoted much of his career to collecting every available nugget of information on the subject. What made the book so unusual wasn’t just the level of detail. It was Shoup’s palpable enthusiasm for the material and his ability to make it interesting. He quoted Albert Einstein and Robert Frost, Lewis Carroll and Graham Greene. He filled up the pages with quirky little details about the way ordinary people go about their lives.

All this detail was made to serve a fairly simple point: “Free” parking costs cities and their residents a fortune and gives us little more than traffic congestion and ugly downtowns. Abolishing all those free spaces could bring about a renewal of high-quality urban life. Despite his verbosity, Shoup made his main point concisely and rather convincingly. Intrigued as I was, however, I dismissed him as an erudite eccentric certain to be branded as a crackpot by the pragmatic engineers and politicians who design and govern American cities. READ MORE