Category Archives: Local Government

Show Up–It’s Important!

Apologies to readers outside central Indiana, but this is important.

Local readers may have missed an announcement that there will be an “open house” to provide information on the System-Level Analysis of the entire downtown interstate system (aka the North Split) on Wednesday May 23, from 3:00 to 7:00, at the Biltwell Event Center, located at 950 S. White River Parkway S. Drive.

Presentations by INDOT–the Indiana Department of Transportation– will be given at 4 p.m. and 6 p.m.  There will be an opportunity for attendees to weigh in–and given INDOT’S disinclination to listen to urban planners, local residents and Indianapolis leadership, a big turnout is really important.

A bit of background:

Indianapolis’ downtown Interstates are at the end of their useful life and are becoming unsafe. INDOT bureaucrats have made it clear that they see absolutely no reason to deviate from the approach they’ve used for 50 years: prioritize concrete over livability and treat in-city infrastructure no differently than interstates crossing rural cornfields. Build huge “buttress walls” and add lanes to the existing overpasses, increasing the length of the street-level “tunnels” that already make street-level walking and biking unpleasant and historic residential neighborhoods less livable.

Thus far, they’ve treated the civic leaders and downtown residents who want to use this opportunity to correct a fifty-year-old mistake as annoying interlopers.

Indianapolis certainly wasn’t the only city through which misguided bureaucrats rammed downtown highways–disrupting street grids, depressing commercial activity and destroying once-vibrant neighborhoods. There is now a half-century of research documenting the resulting damage to health, air quality and public safety in cities throughout the country. In addition to their very high maintenance costs, these structures play havoc with nearby property values and remove acres of prime real estate from the tax base.

Other cities have removed their downtown freeways, and the results have been uniformly positive.

Portland, OR, San Francisco, CA, and Milwaukee, WI replaced their downtown Interstates with boulevards, saving billions of dollars, increasing property values on adjacent land and restoring urban neighborhoods, and another ten cities are in the process of decommissioning theirs. Concerns about congestion and traffic delays have proved unfounded—exits from Interstates are limited, while boulevards allow access to the grid, so traffic moves more evenly.

The problem is that–although Indianapolis will bear the brunt of bad decisions– we don’t get to choose among available alternatives. The state controls the process, and resistance from INDOT has been intense–and disingenuous.

When local residents first objected to INDOT’s proposal to add lanes and erect towering walls as its “solution,” the agency insisted that illustrations produced by the Rethink committee (available at https://rethink65-70.org) didn’t reflect the agency’s as-yet unfinished plans. Yet when INDOT finally unveiled its version, it was identical to those illustrations.

INDOT spokespersons dismissed tunneling as an alternative, citing enormous costs incurred in Syracuse, but neglecting to mention that Syracuse is tunneling through bedrock. (Indianapolis would dig a ditch through dirt.) INDOT has been equally dismissive of the boulevard alternative, which would be far less expensive to build and maintain than INDOT’s proposed repairs and additions to the existing Interstates.

When urban planners and residents of historic neighborhoods raised concerns about the impact on the urban fabric, INDOT responded that such matters aren’t their concern. Their reviews are limited to traffic movement and safety.

We need to make those negative impacts their concern.

INDOT is speeding this project through the required hearings in a transparent effort to forestall any changes to its standard, cookie-cutter approach by getting the project too far along to be changed.

We local citizens may not be able to change the direction of the nation–but we can make INDOT slow its rush to double down on a fifty-year-old mistake. We can show up Wednesday, we can petition the Governor (INDOT does have to listen to him), and we can insist that they genuinely consider the practical and cost-effective alternatives employed elsewhere.

If you live in the Indianapolis area, please make time on Wednesday to demonstrate that doing it right this time is important to a large number of residents–that we aren’t going away just because we are annoying bureaucrats who want to stay in their cookie-cutter comfort zone.

It’s really important.

 

 

The Devil’s In The Details

We used to call this federalism.

I really do respect the research done by the Brookings Institution. Overall, I find their methodologies appropriate and their conclusions sound. But every once in a while, I see an “essay” that makes me wonder what the authors have been smoking. The linked article on “constitutional localism” falls into that category.

Specifically, we call for a new civic ethos or governing framework which we call Constitutional Localism, that will shift the greatest number of public decisions possible to the community level—albeit within a clear constitutional framework to protect the individual freedoms and rights won over the past 250 years.

We see the pursuit by Americans of varied lifestyles and cultural preferences as a healthy sign of American freedom and choice, not a destructive force. We need to rebuild public confidence in American democracy, not by insisting on a singular national answer to each problem, but by celebrating the ability of America’s varied communities to find solutions that work best for them. As we see it, the challenge confronting the nation is to find a way to permit this range of opinion and action to flourish while restoring a shared faith in the common democratic values and processes that define American self-government.

Where to start?

First of all–and most obvious–the framework they suggest is the legal framework we have–a significant, albeit diminishing, degree of state autonomy, constrained by the requirement that local laws not violate the Bill of Rights.

The fact that “localism” often doesn’t look very local is a function of 21st Century reality: the inter-related needs of national (and increasingly global) commerce; the ease with which citizens and criminals can cross state lines, the national nature of many threats we face–from medical epidemics to terrorist attacks to acid rain. Etc.

The challenge is to determine what sorts of rules are properly the purview of local lawmakers, and which need to be national in scope. Americans have engaged in arguments about this since the Articles of Confederation. In my state, Indiana, municipalities face the same issue–a longstanding debate about the state legislature’s refusal to allow meaningful home rule by cities and towns.

People of good will can–and will–argue about what political scientists call “devolution,” and what partisans dub “state’s rights.” Which rules should be left to the locals, and which must be made nationally or even globally? To what extent should citizens think of themselves as part of the broad American fabric, and to what extent members of various sub-constituencies? How much consistency is needed to create unum from our pluribus, and how much is too much?

There is a modern twist to this age-old debate, and it is disquieting.

I have blogged previously about The Big Sort and the growing urban/rural divide. Americans appear to be “sorting” ourselves into like-minded communities, geographical “bubbles” where we can live with people who think and act like us. It is part of the polarization that has kept government from working toward that elusive something called “the common good.” Do we really want to encourage cities to create various iterations of “people’s republics” while more rural areas establish enclaves ruled by “Christian Talibans”?

At what point does autonomy become separatism? Inquiring minds want to know…

 

Asking A Favor

I want to ask a favor of my readers in central Indiana–especially those who live or work in downtown Indianapolis, but also those who come downtown for sporting events, theater, restaurants and other entertainment.

I have previously posted about the upcoming project to repair crumbling Interstate bridges and roads in Indianapolis’ downtown. The city has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to correct the dysfunctions that were a consequence of poor decisions made 50 years ago, but it has become increasingly clear that INDOT — the state agency responsible for the project–is determined to dismiss the alternatives presented to them for consideration, and simply augment and buttress the existing configuration. (The agency claims to be evaluating the alternatives, but when they “explain” that putting the downtown interstates in a tunnel would be prohibitively expensive using an example from Syracuse that required boring through solid rock (Indianapolis would only have to dig a ditch), it is apparent that they are not acting in good faith. Apple-to-apple comparisons are available.

Downtown businesses and civic groups, Historic neighborhoods, architects and planners and lots of downtown residents have formed a coalition to push for that evaluation. We aren’t arguing about the need to repair this infrastructure, but we don’t want to lose the opportunity to mitigate the problems caused by the original construction.

The favor? Write a letter to Governor Holcomb, asking him to instruct INDOT to produce  legitimate, comprehensive, good-faith evaluations of the alternatives available. Here is the letter I have sent; feel free to use it as a template.

Dear Governor Holcomb,

I am writing to you as a citizen of Indiana and a resident of downtown Indianapolis who is concerned about a major project being planned by INDOT to repair and widen the portions of Interstates 65 and 70 commonly referred to as the “spaghetti bowl.”

Fifty years ago, when the interstates were constructed, they were routed through an Indianapolis downtown that had been largely abandoned for the suburbs–a downtown dramatically different from today’s vibrant city center. The decisions made at that time divided neighborhoods, exacerbated public safety problems, and significantly delayed the ensuing commercial and residential redevelopment of our downtown.

Those interstates and their bridges are now deteriorated and require extensive and very expensive repairs. Indianapolis thus has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to dramatically improve what everyone concedes is a thoroughly dysfunctional system. A thoughtful revamping could improve traffic flow and restore community connectivity and walkability; it could also spur economic development that would significantly add to the city’s tax base.

Whatever decisions are made now will be in place for at least fifty to sixty years, so it is critical that this project fix current problems and enhance—not degrade—the city’s quality of life.  A routine, “off the shelf” repair and lane widening project will simply lock the current problems into place.

In the face of INDOT’s clear intent to proceed with that “off the shelf” plan, a coalition composed of planners, architects, landscape architects, and business and civic leaders has come together and proposed two potential alternatives to the currently proposed approach. Both alternatives would free up considerable acreage for commercial development that would add to the city’s tax base, while the plan currently being considered—with massive concrete walls, longer underpasses and increased noise and air pollution– would substantially reduce the assessed value of a large number of properties, as well as the desirability of significant portions of downtown’s residential and historic neighborhoods.

When the current interstate routes were chosen, Indianapolis had no historic districts; today, those interstates disrupt five such districts. In our city, as elsewhere, historic district designations have generated an enormous amount of investment. Property values have continued to rise due to the attractiveness, walkability and residential character of those districts. INDOT’s current approach threatens that investment.

Fifty years ago, mistakes were made. Indianapolis has a rare opportunity to correct those mistakes. Members of the Coalition do not dispute the need for major repairs. We do dispute the clear preference of INDOT to effect those repairs using a standardized approach with which they are familiar and comfortable (and which would be entirely appropriate in a suburban or rural setting).

This is an issue requiring leadership that can only come from your office. I hope you will ensure that the alternatives proposed by the Coalition receive a genuine, unbiased evaluation.

Yours truly,

If you decide to email or snail-mail the Governor, I’d really appreciate a note telling me you did so!

Tomorrow, we’ll return to my usual ranting….

 

Why We Blame The Victim

The Guardian recently ran a fascinating column explaining the evolutionary purpose of that all-too-human tendency to blame the victim.

Rape and sexual assault survivors are asked about what they wore and how they fought back. Poor people who work three jobs and still can’t support a family are blamed for “laziness” and failure, despite facing an economy that is stacked against them.

Recent research suggests that this tendency is actually a somewhat weird side effect of our human desire for fairness–a hard-wired “just world” bias.

The “just-world bias” happens because our brains crave predictability, and as such, we tend to blame victims of unfairness rather than reject the comforting worldview suggesting that good will be rewarded and evil punished.

“There’s just this really powerful urge for people to want to think good things to happen to good people and where the misperception comes in is that there’s this implied opposite: if something bad has happened to you, you must have done something bad to deserve that bad thing,” says Sherry Hamby, a professor of psychology at Sewanee University.

It isn’t only human victims who are blamed for their own misfortune.

Case in point: In Indiana, local school districts rely upon state and federal tax dollars to operate. Since 2011, state per-pupil funding has been dramatically reduced. Those reductions initially cost Indianapolis Public Schools $9.4 million annually; the last three years, however, the annual loss has been $15.5 million. Federal funding has dropped by $14.2 million annually since 2010, and Indiana’s insane tax caps have cost the district an average of $16.8 million every year since 2011.

Meanwhile, expenses—especially teacher compensation and benefits, which represent the majority of the budget—have continued to rise.

So far, the district has met these punishing shortfalls without altering the academic programs that have led to recent, much-needed educational improvements. It has closed schools in order to save the expenses of operating underused facilities and it has sold off unused buildings and other properties. Where possible, it has leased facilities to third parties, to generate rental income. It has reduced its central office operations by $5.3 million annually. It has deferred maintenance on its remaining properties in order to protect instructional programs and refinanced debt when favorable interest rates made that feasible.

As I write in an upcoming column in the local business journal,

There’s nothing left to sell. At some point, deferring maintenance is no longer possible. Meanwhile, teachers need to be paid and provided with health-care benefits; and special education students must have their costly needs met.

The district is currently proposing to raise just over 65 million dollars a year for 8 years. Of that amount, 74% would go for compensation, 12% would go for supplies and services, 11% would go for transportation, and 3% for building maintenance. If the Referendum fails, teacher pay will be frozen, some transportation services eliminated, and educational programs cut back.

Predictably, opponents blame the district for poor management. But all school districts in Indiana—including IPS–are the victims of decisions made in the Indiana Statehouse, and to a lesser extent, in Congress. Among other indignities, Mike Pence and the legislature successfully diverted tax dollars from public schools to parochial ones. Indiana has the country’s largest voucher program, and Ball State researchers report that 98% of Hoosier children using vouchers attend religious schools. Taxpayers sent $146.1 million dollars to voucher schools last year; since 2011, the number is $520 million dollars.

None of those decisions were made by local school districts.

Blaming the numerous public school districts in Indiana that have been forced to propose Referenda is like accusing the victim of a robbery of being imprudent with the stolen money.

 

 

Why Government Loses Public Trust–Indiana Version

Most of us would avoid patronizing a butcher shop where the butcher routinely put his thumb on the scale.  We would take our business elsewhere.

When our state government lies to us, however, most of us can’t simply move elsewhere. Worse, we may not even find out that we have been misled.

I don’t know how it is in other states, but here in Indiana, we are most likely to encounter biased information when the people running the state are religious zealots. Mike Pence was uninterested in the nitty-gritty of governing, but he was intensely focused on imposing his religious beliefs on Hoosiers–he saved his real enthusiasm for his anti-gay, anti-woman efforts.

I had a much better impression of current Governor Holcomb, who has seemed refreshingly free of the urge to sermonize and actually appears to be tending to the issues facing Indiana. But then I came across this report.

Indiana ranks as one of the worst states in the nation when it comes to its infant mortality rate. In his state of the state address earlier this month, Gov. Eric Holcomb (R) called attention to this crisis and announced the goal of improving the state’s status in the coming years. As part of that process, in November 2017 the Indiana State Department of Health (ISDH) launched a new mobile app for its existing statewide campaign aimed at improving Indiana’s infant mortality rate. The app, Liv, was developed with state funding and includes pregnancy and parenting guidance.

It also provides users with contact information for health and service providers, along with basic descriptions of what the users can expect from those providers. But the app’s resource list excludes evidence-based family planning clinics and centers, such as Planned Parenthood and All-Options Pregnancy Resource Center (PRC), while including crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs): fake clinics that do not provide medically sound reproductive health care and actively lie to people seeking services.

Public health research shows that access to comprehensive family planning programs and services can help reduce infant mortality. Nonetheless, continuing the legacy of former Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R), this app—and ISDH’s larger infant mortality initiative—promotes ideology over evidence.

Infant mortality is the result of a combination of factors, including poverty and lack of prenatal care. But research shows that comprehensive contraception and family planning help reduce infant mortality rates.

For example, as research from the Guttmacher Institute shows, access to contraception gives women the tools to space their births: “By allowing women to time and space the number of children they want, contraception prevents unintended, often high-risk pregnancies—too close together, too often, too early or too late in life—that can lead to maternal and child death and injury.” Additionally, addressing unintended pregnancies by increasing access to contraception and family planning services also contributes to increased prenatal care provision by establishing connections between patients and providers.

When policymakers allow ideology to trump evidence, and erect barriers to access for family planning services, you get the results we have been seeing in Indiana. In 2011, only 68 percent of infants in the state were born to women who had received prenatal care in their first trimester–and nearly half of all pregnancies in Indiana are unintended.   

Using taxpayer dollars to direct vulnerable women to crisis pregnancy centers, while omitting information about high-quality health services available through Planned Parenthood, is worse than irresponsible. Crisis pregnancy centers are purveyors of dogma, not medically-accurate information. They have no place on a state-run registry.

Women using the app don’t have to go to Planned Parenthood. But they are entitled to know that it is an option. For state government to omit a medically-appropriate service from a directory it has created and disseminated while including a “service” that offers dishonest “counseling” is unforgivable.

It certainly isn’t the way to cultivate public trust.