The Gazette covers City Hall, now a flood-damaged icon on May's Island in the Cedar River

Posts Tagged ‘Barack Obama’

The coming Highway 30 resurfacing project through Cedar Rapids isn’t city’s first Obama economic-stimulus victory

In IDOT on March 6, 2009 at 9:37 am

It’s not easy identifying the first road project in the Cedar Rapids area that will be funded by the Obama administration’s new, $789-million economic stimulus bill.

In recent weeks, Cathy Cutler, district transportation planner in Cedar Rapids for the Iowa Department of Transportation, told the metro area’s Corridor Metropolitan Planning Organization that Highway 30 through much of Cedar Rapids will be resurfaced in the months ahead, and that might be one project to grab stimulus-package funding.

On Friday, Cutler said the Highway 30 project is moving quickly ahead, but “regular” federal road funding will pay for it, not new federal funding from the stimulus package.

She thought two bridge projects in Benton County in the county west of Cedar Rapids might be the first IDOT projects in the Cedar Rapids area to use stimulus-package funds once they arrive.

The state agency and the commission that oversees it are still trying to sort out what is what as the federal rules evolve, Cutler said.

In any event, the IDOT will let bids on March 17 on a project to resurface 5.49 miles of four-lane Highway 30 between Stoney Point Road SW and Kirkwood Boulevard SW. The expected cost is $3.5 million, with the work slated to be done this construction season, Cutler reported.

She said most of the resurfacing will be an overlay of hot asphalt, those some spots will see cement patches.

Cutler said the IDOT also will improve the C Street SW off-ramp on Highway 30 this summer, an improvement that will include an additional lane of traffic leading up to the off-ramp.

Alliant COO Protsch talks about life after low-cost downtown steam, about the new world with Obama, about a proposal for a $200-million biomass plant

In Alliant Energy, City Hall, Floods on March 1, 2009 at 10:50 am

It was a little telling when Brian Fagan, mayor pro tem of the City Council, quickly looked into the audience at Friday’s State of the City speech when asked about the future of what had been a low-cost steam energy system for the downtown and vital industries and others nearby.

And Fagan drew plenty of chuckles when he saw Eliot out there and asked if he wanted to take the question on.

Eliot is Eliot Protsch, the chief operating officer of Alliant Energy, the utility which had provided that cheap steam from its aged and now flood-damaged and disabled Sixth Street Generating Station.

Amy Reasner, the local attorney who was moderating the event, wasn’t sure if the State of the City speech was designed to have those in the audience help define the city’s current situation.  But in any event, Protsch came to the stage and took to the microphone.

In short, Protsch put it this way:

There might be a solution for the “very large industrial customers” located near the plant. But customers in the downtown and even farther from the Sixth Street plant will need to look for another solution.

“I believe at the end of the day, what I just asserted to you, will end up being where we find ourselves in Cedar Rapids,” Protsch told the audience of about 300 gathered in The Ballroom at the Crowne Plaza Five Seasons Hotel.

He added a caveat: “… absent a very large subsidy from somewhere, with the emphasis on very large.”

In an interview at the end of the Friday event, Protsch broke the issue down this way:

The 100-year-old Sixth Street Generating Station worked to provide low-cost steam to eight large users and another 200 smaller ones in and around downtown because the plant had few capital costs and it burned relatively cheap coal without any giant burden required for emission controls.

In fact, it was sufficiently cheap to burn coal to boil water to produce steam that piping the steam through an old, inefficient, poorly insulated and sometime-leaky piping system didn’t matter much.

All that changed with the June flood, which disabled the plant.

Now Alliant and its customers, he said, face two choices, neither attractive.

Protsch said the coal alternative would require huge capital costs — $52 million to retrofit the plant and likely $150 million or more in the years ahead to add emission controls to it to meet the changing and emerging environmental regulations. The capital costs, which would be built into the utility rates, make the idea unworkable, he said.

The natural gas alternative is different: It doesn’t require high capital costs upfront, but he said the cost of natural gas is both higher and more volatile. Suddenly, producing steam with natural gas has a much higher cost, and one too high to be able to ship steam great distances through an old, inefficient piping system. Short of digging up downtown streets and replacing the steam pipes, this idea won’t work, he said.

Protsch said Alliant has been telling smaller users, including all of those steam users in the downtown, that they should look at another solution for their steam needs. Many customers already have converted to their own systems, he said.

“I believe they all should be looking hard at that,” he said. “Because absent -– again absent a big subsidy from somewhere –- I just don’t think it’s going to be economic for anybody to restore the steam service the way it was burning coal.”

The story could be different for large industrial users like Quaker and Cargill –– Alliant continues in ongoing discussions with them, he said — next to the Sixth Street power plant. He thought “a natural gas facility of some sort” could work for them. Alliant wouldn’t have to be part of that solution, but “we’d like to be,” he said.

“Mostly, we want our customers to put in the most efficient steam production capability that they can so that they remain viable,” Protsch said. “So that’s our goal. Whether we have a role in it or not is less of an issue.”

For some months, there has been much discussion at City Hall, from local legislators and from Alliant itself about the lobbying effort in Washington, D.C., and in Des Moines and even at City Hall to find some kind of short-term and/or long-term subsidy to solve the downtown steam matter.

Asked about that, Protsch said Alliant representatives were in Washington, D.C., in recent days was being discussed with Iowa’s Congressional offices about the building of a $200-million power plant that would burn biomass to produce energy in and near the downtown.

Protsch noted that such an idea had been studied in the past.

If any such federal grant would surface, he suggested that it would be made to the city of Cedar Rapids, who then might lease land from Alliant to build such a biomass facility.

“We’re open to that,” he said.

For those looking at the big national and global energy future, Protsch said they need look no further than Cedar Rapids.

“Look at Obama’s budget bill,” he said. “It’s got carbon trading. Coal generates more carbon than natural gas, and you’ve got to build that into the cost.

“This is a microcosm of national energy policy, right here in Cedar Rapids. Because it’s an economic analysis associated with burning coal, biomass or some other fuel versus natural gas.

“It’s a microcosm of putting energy production closer to where it is utilized or moving energy greater distances either in a pipe or wire. It’s a manifestation old infrastructure being replaced by new infrastructure with vast differences in capital costs …”

In short, it isn’t good news in any event for those who had loved the low-cost steam from the disabled Sixth Street Generating Station.

It will cost too much to retrofit the Sixth Street Generating Station and add emission controls – Protsch doubted the small plant could win any environmental waiver — to burn coal.

And it cost too much to pipe more expensively produced steam from natural gas though an old, inefficient system of pipes.

“Absent” some big subsidy, Protsch repeated along the way.

City Council aspires to bigger league; was split with smaller-ball Linn County inevitable?

In Brian Fagan, City Hall, Floods, Jim Prosser, Justin Shields, Linn County government on February 22, 2009 at 11:03 am

On a 3-2 vote, the Linn County Board of Supervisors has decided not to study to see if it makes sense to join forces with the Cedar Rapids City Council in a new public administration building, which is being called a Community Services Center.

Even Supervisor Linda Langston, who was one of two on the short end of the vote, said she’d only continue to participate with the city in a public planning process about a building on two conditions: if the city shortened the length of the process and if the city treated the county nicer, as a “full partner.”

Ben Rogers, one of two new supervisors and the youngest of the five, was alone in advocating that the planning process could do nothing but help no matter what it came to conclude. Rogers noted, too, that joining forces with the city didn’t necessarily mean building new buildings. It could mean renovating existing ones, he said.

As much as anything, the supervisor drama on Friday served as a reminder that the city of Cedar Rapids and Linn County are two entirely different animals. They always have been.

Cedar Rapids and its City Hall are big entities with a complicated set of responsibilities: water, waste water, airport, cultural attractions and entertainment and sports venues for starters.

There’s also a downtown, which community leaders ranging far beyond City Hall say is vital to the future vitality of Cedar Rapids and to the city’s ability to keep and attract employers and employees.

Most importantly, Cedar Rapids is what community leaders in and out of City Hall never tire of reminding people of: It is the industrial and commercial economic “engine” for the city, county and region.

City Hall plays a central role in all of that as it oversees and regulates development in the city.

Linn County doesn’t.

The differences could no more clearly have been drawn between Wednesday evening’s City Council meeting and Friday’s late-morning meeting of the county supervisors.

On Wednesday evening, the City Council enthusiastically endorsed moving ahead on a public participation process to see if it makes sense to build a new Community Services Center of some kind that city, county and school district might somehow share.

Council members Brian Fagan and Justin Shields talked passionately about the city’s need to challenge the notion that it was good enough to just restore a damaged city to the way it had been before the flood.

“Sometimes out of ashes you want to rise from those ashes and build something better than what was there before,” Shields said.

 “I think this is a unique opportunity … that the city, county and school districts have to really come together and think of all the things that we do and they do and see if we can’t come up some plan that will put those facilities together and make them better than they ever were, and look to the future that we’re building for the next 50 to 100 years,” Shields said.

Fagan put the matter in a larger framework. He said the city was doing nothing short of challenging what he said was the conventional approach that the Federal Emergency Management Agency tries to insist on. Fagan said FEMA wants jurisdictions to rebuild flood-damaged buildings as they were, while he said he wants to rebuild better than before.

His hope, he said, was that the Obama administration might share his view of how a city should come back after a flood.

“This is an opportunity for us again to be an example for the country in terms of how we rebuild,” Fagan said.

And council member Tom Podzimek wasn’t even at the meeting. He was sick. Podzimek is most insistent of the need for council members to look to the long term and to measure things like a building’s energy efficiency, its environmental impact and its life-cycle costs before making decisions about building or renovating.

Friday morning, over at the Linn County Board of Supervisors, Supervisor Brent Oleson, the new representative on the board from Marion, seemed to state the case for the supervisor majority best.

He said the supervisors didn’t want any kind of new building in which they shared a board room or council chambers with anyone else. The county needs its own, he said.

Oleson revealed  that  Podzimek had called him Thursday evening to talk about the need for more information before moving ahead.

Oelson, though, rejected the Podzimek notion, and the Fagan one for that matter.

“I’m not going to be paralyzed,” Oelson said about the need to get more facts. He said he had plenty of facts.

The county’s Administrative Office Building can live on another 70 or more years, he said. Let’s fix it, he said, and move back in.

Oleson said it was time to separate needs from wants.

Would I want a “greener” building that would be the pride of all of Iowa? Maybe, he said.

“But it’s not feasible now,” he concluded.

Supervisors Lu Barron and Jim Houser were quick to note the existing building can be made more “green.”

Barron was the swing vote on this, and she stuck with the majority in withdrawing from any co-location discussions with the city in a new Community Services Center.

After all, she noted, the public participation process calls for the hiring of two consultants to help lead the process over six or more months. Does the county want to share in those costs? she wondered.

Even Supervisor Langston questioned the need for consultants from out of state, hinting that’s what City Hall had in mind.

The city has had two consultants, national consultant Camp Dresser & McKee and local consultant Howard R. Green, leading months of behind-the-scenes discussions on the co-location idea to date.

In the longer view, this parting of the ways between the supervisors and City Hall isn’t really surprising.

It was only just a few years ago, in the early 2000s, that now-likely mayoral candidate Ron Corbett, then president of the Cedar Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, worked to get city and county to merge some of their operations. He threw in the towel on it.

Instead, the city changed its government to a one with a professional city manager and a part-time council, while the county enlarged its government to five supervisors without a professional manager.

On Friday, Les Beck, the county’s chief planner, encouraged the supervisors to stay in the planning process on co-location of facilities. Beck said planning led to “informed decisonmaking,” a concept which Cedar Rapids City Manager Jim Prosser talks a lot about. Planners talk that way.

The planning process, though, would have required spending some funds on it and, maybe, a lot of money down the road on new facilities, and the county opted out.

This is a city election year. Six of nine council members face re-election, including the mayor.

What happened between the county and city last week, no doubt, will help shape the election debate with at least three questions:

Do voters want the city to be better than before? How much planning does that require? And just where does a new public building fit on the priority list?

C-SPAN junkies see Rockwell Collins chief tell Obama, face to face, that Cedar Rapids needs help

In Floods, Uncategorized on February 14, 2009 at 1:16 pm

For anyone who failed to spend Friday evening watching C-SPAN, you missed a chance to see President Obama address The Business Council, which describes itself as “an association of the chief executive officers of the world’s most important business enterprises.”

“Membership is personal, not corporate, and by invitation,” the council’s Web site explains.

In any event, Obama spoke to The Business Council in the East Room of The White House on Friday to tell the CEOs that the $789-billion economic stimulus plan was good for the nation. Obama told the council members that he needed their help and that government needed the thoughts of the nation’s business leaders.

It all took about 15 minutes. Obama then mixed with the crowd, shaking hands and thanking the top dogs for coming.

He came to one familiar looking fellow, and the C-Span microphone picked a little of the exchange.

Rockwell Collins’ CEO Clay Jones introduced himself to Obama and noted that he was there from Cedar Rapids.

Obama connected with Cedar Rapids, of course. It was his first presidential campaign stop after announced his campaign for the presidency in Springfield, Ill., in Feb. 10, 2007.

“How’s Cedar Rapids?” Obama asked Rockwell’s Jones, shaking his hand.

“We need a little help there, sir,” Jones told Obama in this eye-to-eye moment.

The exchange continued for a few seconds, out of microphone range. Obama seemed to say that he was aware of Cedar Rapids’ flood recovery, and he could be heard mentioning Gov. Chet Culver’s name.

Jones had a few seconds at Obama. And the Rockwell Collins CEO wasn’t talking the aviation industry, he wasn’t telling Obama how wonderful he was. He doing a one-CEO lobbying campaign for Cedar Rapids — the chief of Cedar Rapids most major employer, eyeball-to-eyeball with Obama.

Who knows.

There have been thousands of pleas in Cedar Rapids about the need to lobby Washington, D.C., for disaster funds. City and community delegations have been to the nation’s capital, and City Hall is paying a D.C. firm $120,000 a year to make its case.

Where Friday’s interchange between Rockwell Collins’ Jones fits in is hard to know.

City Council is out there on energy issue with Obama — 30 minutes after his inaugural speech

In Chuck Wieneke, City Hall, Jim Prosser, Monica Vernon, Pat Shey, Tom Podzimek on January 20, 2009 at 7:19 pm

The City Council spent its lunch hour Tuesday – 30 minutes after President Barack Obama finished his inaugural address – talking about how city government and the city as a whole should use energy in a way that doesn’t compromise the lives of generations to come.

Obama had just said: “… and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet. These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics. Less measurable, but no less profound, is a sapping of confidence across our land; a nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable, that the next generation must lower its sights. Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real, they are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this America: They will be met.”

Most of the nine-members on the council — whether they support Obama or not — can sound a little bit like him when it comes to thinking about the future.

“Sustainability” and a look out for the future has been a constant theme of this council and of City Manager Jim Prosser.

Developing an energy management plan is among the council’s top priorities.

In an hour-long discussion Tuesday, council member Pat Shey might have provided the best suggestion on how the council could begin to move on an energy policy and an energy management plan. He said the council should lead by example.

In the post-flood era, the council can do that, others said, by making sure that the city builds energy-efficient, LEED-certified buildings to reduce energy use in the future. The city, they noted, will be renovating or replacing many flood-damaged city buildings in the years ahead.

Shey also called on the council to create an energy-management scorecard, which local developers would be required to complete so the city had a sense of how energy-efficient and sustainable any proposed project might be.

The city already has such scorecards for smart growth and infill development, and Shey said the energy scorecard could be used like the others to make it clear — “It raises the consciousness,” he said — of what the council is trying to promote in the city.

“But we need to start with us,” he said.

Council member Monica Vernon and others said that any energy plan needs to start immediately and be applied to all the construction that is coming in the city as flood-damaged homes and apartments and businesses are rebuilt.

Building codes can be revised as a way to help bring desired energy practices about, she and council member Chuck Wieneke said.

Council member Tom Podzimek pointed to Portland, Ore., and said that city posts on its Web site the millions and millions of dollars it has saved over the years by having an energy management policy in place.

Such an effort can make a city “a beacon,” Podzimek said.

Podzimek and Wieneke agreed to work with the city staff on the formulation of an energy policy and plan.

In signing on with Podzimek, Wieneke said, “Tom wants to deal with the universe, and I can kind of hone it down to the planet.”

Podzimek had been talking about the council’s need to focus on energy production, distribution and consumption as it develops an energy policy.

But he also looked ahead and suggested a very specific step the city might consider taking to ready for the future.

Any time the city is replacing parking meters downtown, he said the city ought to install meters with plug-ins for the fast-approaching time when people can plug their electric cars into them.

“We know that’s coming,” he said.

After the meeting, he said the city would need to put a pencil to paper and work out whether it made financial sense now to buy some electric cars in the near term and install plug-ins to see how it worked.