David Montgomery leaves us with a report on the Minnehaha County Commission's decision to drive more bicyclists off the road by rumble-stripping the Wall Lake Road. The shoulder there is already narrow; rumble strips will make the rideable shoulder perilously thin. The county does not plan to pony up the cash to expand the shoulder to a safer width for bicyclists and pedestrians.

Understand, motorists, than if the county is going to render the shoulder unrideable, we cyclists will expect you to share the driving lane with us. Keep your eyes open.

But we know we'll have to pedal to the shoulder every now and then, so in hopes that the engineers will offer cyclists some accommodation, so Minnehaha County, at least keep the grooves thin and shallow, and space them out.

Or better yet, since the rumble strips are there to deal with inattentive motorists, why not place the inconvenience in the motorists' lane? Instead of taking five inches away from bicyclists, why not cut those grooves on the left side of the white stripe? Give motorists a rumble before their tires hit the line, and before their mirrors are sticking out into the shoulder where they can slip bicyclists? Left-cut rumble strips would guarantee that I would stay on the shoulder instead of swinging an extra foot out into the driving lane.

Once again, Left-leaning policies are better for everyone.

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Meade County Commissioners have what seems like a good transportation idea: they'd like to build a bypass east of Sturgis to connect state Highways 34 and 79 straight south to Interstate 90:

Proposed East Sturgis Bypass (annotations mine; map from Google; click to embiggen!)

Proposed East Sturgis Bypass (annotations mine; map from Google; click to embiggen!) 

This east bypass would run from the Elkview Campground near Exit 37 straight north to the Buffalo Chip entrance. The project would cut a couple miles of new road from the south end of 131st Avenue to the north end of Cardinal Place. Both of those roads appear to be gravel (I invite updates from local travelers!), so I assume the project would also include paving those existing roads.

The new road would nicely entriangle Sturgis. Folks coming from Rapid City to visit the Chip and Bear Butte would not have to drive through downtown Sturgis traffic, which on normal days may cut just a few miles and minutes from the trip but which during the Rally could shorten through-time by at least half an hour. Commissioners also say that the Fort Meade VA Hospital needs this road as a second emergency access route.

The Meade County Commission hasn't poured asphalt yet, but they are taking names: Pleasant Valley Parkway, Fort Meade Expressway, Ronald Reagan Road, Todd Beamer Road, Oren Hindman Road.... Residents will get to vote online over the Christmas break, and the commission will adopt the new name at its January 14th meeting.

But the commissioners may not get to build their road, due to their choice of funding mechanism: tax increment financing. To bring in the two million dollars needed to build this bypass, the Meade County Commission has drawn up a gargantuan serpentine TIF district: 

Proposed Meade County TIF 2014TIF districts usually are neighborhood scale. TIF districts usually encompass the immediate area where improvements will be built. Build new streets or sewer or other public improvements, and property values on adjoining lots should rise, as developers build homes and businesses to take advantage of the new infrastructure. Those increased property values provide the tax increment that pays off the financing that built the improvements.

The proposed bypass would lie in one township at the southwest corner of the TIF district. The TIF district paying for it spans 24 townships (total land area over 600 square miles), including 11 entire townships to the immediate north and east of Sturgis. East of those townships, the TIF district abandons Highway 34 and bends north, east, and back southeast to take in land on the proposed route of the Keystone XL pipeline.

That northernmost jut is the real moneymaker: it appears to encompass KXL pumping station #17 near Opal (according to the map TransCanada submitted to the PUC). Commission Chairman Alan Aker says the TIF District captures enough taxable land value to pay off the road project in 20 years even if Keystone XL does not come to fruition, but the pipeline and especially Pumping Station #17 would help Meade County pay off the TIF much faster.

The TIF would prevent the Meade County School District from cashing in right away on any added tax value from the pipeline, the pumping station or other development in the expansive district. Locking that future value into the new connector road could deprive the school district of $1.6 million over the next five years. The Meade County school board doesn't like that idea:

Superintendent Don Kirkegaard says the board is not opposed to the road, nor to TIF’s in general, but this particular TIF seems nothing more than a shift in taxes.

“I did a five-year estimate and I believe the district would lose about $1.6-million in future revenue based on projections. It really is a 2-mile road and we’re shifting the taxing structure for over 300 sections of land to pay for the road. It seems like the school is the only player in the new revenue source and the district just can’t support this particular map.”

Kirkeggard says typically, a TIF is designed to be a small area of property to help with the infrastructure in that small area. But in this one, he says it’s more of a “rob Peter to pay Paul” situation.

“The rezoning of the how we are going to use those taxes has nothing to do with the project. It’s just a way, as I say, “rob Peter to pay Paul,” and in this case, we’re Peter. So, we can’t support this particular map. It has both short term and long term impacts to the district. We’re strapped for cash, just like the county is, and we don’t think this is equitable for the school district” [Gary Matthews, "Meade 46-1 School Board Opposes County's New 131st Avenue TIF Map," KBHB Radio, 2014.12.10].

The Meade County Commission doesn't appreciate the school board's resistance. They may face broader public opposition. Under the banner of Meade County Taxpayers for Responsible Government, TIF opponents are petitioning to subject the county's funding plan to a public vote. They have until early January (January 7, by my calculation) to gather at least 762 signatures.

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Small sacrifice to fight Putin and jihadis?

Bob Mercer notes that county emergency responders lack the training and resources to deal with oil train accidents. County emergency management officials don't even get updates on what sort of toxic train materials are moving through or parking in their counties. State Emergency Response Commission chairman Bob McGrath says that in response to this increased risk to emergency responders and the public at large, the Legislature is likely to do nothing:

The commission’s chairman, Bob McGrath of White, said training money is available, but he doesn’t know where equipment money would be found.

McGrath said he doesn’t foresee the Legislature imposing fees and won’t allow special tax assessments. “I think the legislation approach probably is not going to work,” he said [Bob Mercer, "Oil Trains Present Unmet Challenges for South Dakota," Aberdeen American News, 2014.12.16].

The Emergency Response Commission called for no action.

As we wait unprepared for the next messy derailment, let us take comfort in the fact that we are sacrificing our local safety to support the global war on bad guys. Our oil production is putting a serious crimp in Vladimir Putin's style:

Putin's Russia, like the USSR before it, is only as strong as the price of oil. In the 1970s, we made the mistake of thinking that the USSR's invasion of Afghanistan meant that we were losing the Cold War, when the reality was that they had stumbled into their own Vietnam and could only afford to feed their people as long as oil stayed sky-high. The USSR's economic mirage, though, became apparent to everybody—none less than their own people, who had to scrounge in empty supermarkets—after oil prices bottomed out in the 1980s. That history is repeating itself now, just without the Marxist-Leninism. Putin could afford to invade Georgia and Ukraine when oil prices were comfortably in the triple digits, but not when they're half that. Russia can't afford anything then [Matt O'Brien, "Sorry, Putin. Russia's Economy Is Doomed," Washington Post: Wonkblog, 2014.12.15].

We and the Saudis are also helping beat the Islamic State thugs, who can't command as high a price for the product of their commandeered oil fields. Well, that, and we're blowing up the oil infrastructure they control.

So anyone willing to trade local emergency responder safety and environmental integrity for geopolitical wins against Russia and the caliphate?

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The GOP spin machine is trying really hard to scare Republicans away from investing $100 million in South Dakota roads by calling "the single largest tax increase in state history." Pat Powers tries to lower expectations and deter support by claiming the proposal from the interim Highway Needs and Financing Committee is dead on arrival.

Powers had better get in line with his corporate overlords, who are lining up behind road investment. For the past year, a variety of industry lobbying groups have been building a "Roads Are Vital" campaign to make taxes sound fun. Who's on the team supporting a ten-cent gasoline tax hike? The Chamber of Commerce, the general contractors, the truckers association, the cement and asphalt groups (yes, there is a Dakota Asphalt Pavement Association—they initiate new members by tarring and feathering), county commissioners, co-ops, Big Ag, engineers, AAA, the auto-dealers....

The Roads Are Vital Coalition is out tweeting and marketing its pitch, saying, among other things, that the current dip in gasoline prices presents the perfect opportunity to raise the gasoline tax. And while they don't have Governor Daugaard full-throatedly singing their song, they don't have him killing the roads proposal, which he could do with a word if he wanted.

Dead on arrival? I don't think so. The Roads Are Vital Coalition poses a powerful, big money threat to Republicans' commitment to their campaign-trail slogans. Add to that pressure the glaring reality of our crumbling roads and bridges, and we just might see the 2015 Legislature fill some potholes.

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Governor Dennis Daugaard deserves all the guff we can give him for reneging on his no-new-taxes promise to consider a gasoline-tax increase. Acknowledging that we don't spend enough on our roads and bridges is an important repudiation of the Republican sloganeering that would have us believe that public goods grow on free-market trees. Roads don't just happen; communities build them with taxes.

But Governor Daugaard deserves credit for screwing up the courage to focus on transportation at a time when Congress appears incapable of getting anything done. The lame-duck session is ticking away with zero accomplishments. Congress stages a cynical political ploy to express its support for one private pipeline that won't help any American drive to work, then goes home for Thanksgiving. But both parties ignore the Highway Trust Fund, which we urgently need to replenish in order to rebuild our crumbling roads and bridges:

Ray LaHood: That's the pot of money that over 50 years helped us create the best interstate system in the world, which is now falling apart.

Steve Kroft: Why? How did it get this way?

Ray LaHood: It's falling apart because we haven't made the investments. We haven't got the money. The last time we raised the gas tax, which is how we built the interstate system, was 1993.

Steve Kroft: What has the resistance been?

Ray LaHood: Politicians in Washington don't have the political courage to say, "This is what we have to do." That's what it takes.

Steve Kroft: They don't want to spend the money? They don't want to raise the taxes?

Ray LaHood: That's right. They don't want to spend the money. They don't want to raise the taxes. They don't really have a vision of America the way that other Congresses have had a vision of America [Steve Kroft, "Falling Apart: America's Neglected Infrastructure," CBS: 60 Minutes, 2014.11.23.

In at least suggesting that he'll set aside his election-year slogans and seek more tax revenue to maintain our roads, Governor Daugaard is showing a little more leadership and vision than our Congressional delegation. Let's hope our Legislature can follow the Governor's (and more importantly, Senator Mike Vehle's) lead, drop the campaign trail baloney, educate the voters as to the proper role of government, and fill some potholes.

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Remember how McGovern Middle School on the northwest edge of Sioux Falls had to ban kids from walking to school because of bad urban planning?

Turn with me to Lakewood, Ohio, a 52,000-strong suburb of Cleveland that embraces sensible, community-building urban planning:

As Lakewood grew, the city opted against setting up a school bus system, focusing instead on building schools to fit within the community. Most of the schools are multistory buildings on relatively small lots, making them easier to incorporate into residential neighborhoods. As the facilities aged over the years, officials chose to restore and upgrade the existing structures, rather than build sprawling new single-story campuses [Daniel Luzer, "The Town Where Everyone Still Walks to School," Governing, November 2014].

The result? Lakewood's schools offer no bus service, and nearly everyone can walk to school.  Kids get more exercise hauling themselves to school, and the schools save money:

...[T]he Lakewood school district spends about $500,000 a year on transportation, about $1 million less than comparable school districts, according to schools treasurer Kent Zeman. That’s money it can use for other things, including the slightly higher costs of maintaining those smaller, neighborhood-oriented schools. As Zeman puts it, “If you’re going to spend extra money, I’d rather it be on a teacher than a bus” [Luzer, Nov. 2014].

Rural South Dakota schools can't get rid of buses completely. But when we save a little money by abandoning neighborhood schools and building big flat buildings out at the edge of town, we shift costs to kids and families who can no longer walk to school, and we impose ongoing costs on taxpayers by requiring bus service for in-town kids who used to be able to hoof it.

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There is something perverse about capitalism and the global economy when a shipping company suspends cargo runs from Minneapolis at the height of harvest. We have food, something human being needs every day, and big business would rather haul coal and oil across the Pacific. The capitalist system shows further malfunction in failing to pay those who grow food enough to make shipping their product to eaters pay off.

Senator-Elect Mike Rounds and his facilitators think the solution is more more more! Pump and pipe more oil instead of challenging the root problem, an addiction to fossil fuels.

In my reading on the grain-rail-oil problem, I notice that Northwest grain farmers are having an easier time getting their product to market because barges can haul their grain down the Columbia. That gets me thinking: why don't we alleviate the shipping shortage by returning to barge shipments on the Missouri River? Let's even expand it: install some storage bins and grain chutes at the dams—up and over!—and maybe we could float grain all the way down from Bismarck.

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KELO puts the cart before the horse with this strange headline:

Improved Roads Could Mean More Taxes

Brief review of causality, Mr. Schaffhauser: We pay taxes. Government uses those taxes to improve roads. If we pay more taxes, we can fix more roads. So more taxes mean improved roads.

We can also consider the inverse with some broader context: South Dakota Republicans pride themselves on not raising taxes. Not raising taxes means less money available to government to keep up with road repairs. Not keeping up with road repairs means are roads deteriorate. So electing Republicans could mean crappier roads. Drive around your county for empirical proof.

Republican Senator Mike Vehle (R-20/Mitchell) continues to try to see around his party's fiscal short-sightedness, but it's tough. He figures the bill for catching up with years of neglect of our road and bridge repair needs is $400 million to $500 million. Yet he's only been able to lead his interim Highway Needs and Financing Committee to approve raising maybe a quarter of that revenue:

"What we're trying to do is say we recognize the need. We're not going to be able to fill it all, but we do realize we have to do something," Vehle said.

The committee passed a list of recommendations that would raise close to $100 million for roads and bridges. Some of it would come from proposed license fee increases. Other revenue sources would come from new or increased taxes on products related to driving, such as vehicles and fuel.

"What we tried to do was, everyone felt a little bit of pain. We aren't just going to make one area pay for it all," Vehle said [Erich Schaffhauser, "Improved Roads Could Mean More Taxes," KELOLand.com, 2014.11.09].

We Democrats don't support raising taxes just for the sake of raising taxes. We support raising taxes only when important public projects need the money... just like Republican Senator Vehle does. But Republican prejudices and pigheadedness prevent South Dakota from raising the money it needs to meet basic public needs.

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