Sunday, June 29, 2014

Just Because it's Popular Doesn't Mean it's Good! Argument Fail on Third Bridge

With the stirring claim that "The region needs this bridge and has for decades..." today the paper once again argues circularly, assuming as a conclusion what in fact needs to be proved.

The editorial board hasn't yet engaged facts or strong claims like:
  • traffic is flat on the bridges
  • the proposed location is in a liquefaction zone and the existing bridges aren't reinforced for the "big one" earthquake
  • driving is harmful to cities and to individuals
  • funds for a mega-project might be better allocated to different things
(etc., etc.)

Anyway, things that are popular aren't always good - by itself that's not a controversial claim, right? History's littered with popular things we later learn are bad or dumb or evil.

There are also other problems here.

1) "Although the federal government likely will provide significant funding...."

Official River Crossing FAQ on Funding:
"Will the state and for the project? No"
Geez. When can we put this one to bed?

2) "Salem is unusual among major river-based cities in having only one main bridge link..."

Rome and Salem, separated by rivers, at the same scale
(click to enlarge images!)
It's true. But there are good reasons for this.

Here's a side-by-side clip of Rome separated by the Tiber and Salem separated by the Willamette.

It's astonishing to think how much more dense is Rome and how the patterns of foot traffic in antiquity called for a very different approach to mobility across the river. It's also interesting how much of the riverfront we have not developed, reserving it for park land and industry and private residence.

Salem has one crossing because of an hour-glass or waist in the middle of two much wider flood plains, across which very long spans would be required. Salem's river crossing is dictated by geography, not primitivity, and our centrifugal development patterns conform to the logic of cars. We've screwed ourselves.

But if a third bridge was easy and obvious and useful here, we would have built one already! Maybe we should work what we've got rather than try to be what we're not.

More close-in redevelopment and less low-density development on the edges would be a good start.

3) "No one can predict how travel will change in the years before the third bridge is built. Neither do we know whether the project will prove financially feasible. But it would be foolish to sit still instead of planning as best we can."

Here's the most important one, at least from the perspective here.

Not a crazy Liberal: Hank Paulson, Jr at podium, via Wikipedia
A week ago in the New York Times, Bush Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, Jr, addressed planning instead of sitting still: Tax Carbon:
THERE is a time for weighing evidence and a time for acting. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned throughout my work in finance, government and conservation, it is to act before problems become too big to manage.

For too many years, we failed to rein in the excesses building up in the nation’s financial markets. When the credit bubble burst in 2008, the damage was devastating. Millions suffered. Many still do.

We’re making the same mistake today with climate change. We’re staring down a climate bubble that poses enormous risks to both our environment and economy. The warning signs are clear and growing more urgent as the risks go unchecked.

This is a crisis we can’t afford to ignore. I feel as if I’m watching as we fly in slow motion on a collision course toward a giant mountain. We can see the crash coming, and yet we’re sitting on our hands rather than altering course.

We need to act now, even though there is much disagreement, including from members of my own Republican Party, on how to address this issue while remaining economically competitive. They’re right to consider the economic implications. But we must not lose sight of the profound economic risks of doing nothing.

The solution can be a fundamentally conservative one that will empower the marketplace to find the most efficient response. We can do this by putting a price on emissions of carbon dioxide — a carbon tax. Few in the United States now pay to emit this potent greenhouse gas into the atmosphere we all share. Putting a price on emissions will create incentives to develop new, cleaner energy technologies.
Some Sanity

But there's one good thing in the Statesman editorial.
although tolls are rare in the Pacific Northwest, they are an accepted part of travel in much of the United States. Many drivers, especially of commercial vehicles, gladly pay a small toll to avoid congestion and quickly arrive at their destination.
The paper should embrace a campaign to toll the bridges now. Operating with pricing signals in the same way as a carbon tax, tolls would better allocate existing capacity, provide funds for the seismic reinforcement of the existing bridges, and demonstrate that we don't actually need a new giant bridge and highway.


Jim Scheppke said...

I'm with you SBOB, all the way until the last paragraph. You join Marion Council Commissioner Sam Brentano in being in favor of tolling the bridges we have. That makes two of you.

One problem with tolling is that there are big start-up costs and significant on-going costs. It is estimated that tolls on the SR 520 bridge in Seattle cost about $0.50 each just to collect. Lots of people are trying to avoid that bridge and causing big traffic problems elsewhere. In our case tolling our bridges might cause big problems for Independence. Tolls really hit low income workers hard who may not have much of a choice, given our horrible transit system.

I hope you were just trying to be provocative and were not serious about tolling our bridges. There are better ways to fund the work we need to do on them, including state funds, which are a possibility according to what ODOT reported to the Oversight Team last week.

Walker said...

"The Quiet Majority" -- like Nixon's "Silent Majority" in favor of the war in Vietnam and aghast at student protests against it. And equally wrong.

Jim, there are plenty of good arguments for tolling the existing bridges. The most important one is that it will further accelerate the drop in crossings, which will even more reveal the Bridgasaurus Boondogglus to be nothing more than a giant slab of pork being served up to the Chamber of the 1%, heavy advertisers in the "local" McPaper, the one that's totally OK with tearing down Howard Hall and wants to build a gigantic hunk of indistinguishable autosprawl over the homes and businesses of real Salem residents.

Susann Kaltwasser said...

I live in West Salem and can't avoid using the bridge. I do not think it is fair that I would have to pay a 'tax' (which is what a toll amounts to) to go to church, to see my doctor, to visit the ER or to see a movie!

My son-in-law and daughter work on the other side of the river. Even just a $ dollar toll means $4 a day taken out of their household budget. That amounts to $80 a month or almost $1,000 a year!

If you take a $1,000 out of someone's income, it won't force them to carpool, it will force them to reconsider using any of their remaining money on things that they now spend it on. Like maybe no more shopping downtown...use the internet...or no more going to the a video from Netflix...or no more eating out.

Local businesses will be impacted and in the long run merchants will be begging for people to come across the bridge.

For those who live in South Salem, I can see they might think a toll is ok, because they don't come this way very often, but for a working West Salem person this would be a real hardship. I am sure that it would impact housing prices as well, since you would have to think twice about whether you could afford such an expense.

Curt said...

The argument against tolling is the same as the argument against taxing cigarettes. They are never going to quit therefore is not fair to tax them. But the damage their behavior does to others and the city as a whole does not go away. History has so far proven that argument wrong. Taxing tobacco has changed behavior.

It will also be a poison pill that kills the project. I'm behind it 110 percent.

Anonymous said...

Toll the bridges and use the money to fund a fully functional transit system.

Crossing the river by car should not be the only option—nor necessarily the easiest option. We should be developing and encouraging viable alternatives.

Tolling the bridges will decrease their use even further, slashing the perceived "need" for a new bridge. It will also provide both the demand and funds for alternatives.

A functional transit system should be implemented along with tolls to minimize negative impact to low income workers.

Though driving is already quite expensive, it is still a highly subsidized activity, and thus much cheaper than it would otherwise be.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

@Susann (and @Jim) - Re: "I do not think it is fair that I would have to pay a 'tax' (which is what a toll amounts to) to go to church, to see my doctor, to visit the ER or to see a movie!"

From the 2008 "Keep Salem Moving" $100 million road bond description:

"The bonds would mature in fifteen years or less from issuance date and could be issued in one or more series. It is estimated that the proposed tax would result in a rate of $0.32 per $1,000 of assessed property value."

You agree, then, linking road use to property value and taxing property is dumb!

We meter electricity and water - and it is more reasonable to meter road use than to tie it in a random way to property value.

A toll to use the bridge is much more reasonable than a property tax. Really.

More generally, the revenue picture is in flux. ODOT is working on a mileage tax to replace the gas tax; and it may take longer than we'd like, but a carbon tax on top of the gas tax will further add a signal to car use.

One way or the other, we're gonna meter road useage better than we currently do.

And then our subsidized "Soviet Bread Line" approach to road and car use, one in which the resource is overused because there's not a pricing signal, and we pay too often in time ("traffic jam" or "trying to find a parking spot"), will join the dust bin of "popular ideas" that turned out to be dumb.

Susann Kaltwasser said...

SBOB, I am saying that if you think something is not going to negatively affect you, then you are more likely to support it.

Comparing going to work or going to church to smoking is kind of silly. They are not the same.

I suppose that what you are suggesting is that my son-in-law does it take the bus to work at 1030 p.m. and catch it home at 7 a.m.? Or maybe he should ride his bike in the middle of the night?

Property taxes to pay for roads, school, public services does not bother me. If you are wealthy enough to own property, you should share in the expense.

Taxing everyone in the city whether they use something or not is a long standing and reliable to get revenue.

I think that we need to reform the taxing system back to a pre-measure 5 and 50 level,so that we can fund community services.

Finally, a good transit system is needed for sure, but it is not the cure all.

But in the end, my gut feeling is that all of this is academic because the bridge is not going to be built. Not even if we come up with the money...which I doubt...I don't think it is going to get approved.

I have lived in Salem all my life and we have been trying to get a third bridge for at least 60 years. Something always derails it, because the truth is that the current location for the bridges is already taken.

If there are federal or state dollars to be given out, they will go to existing bridges, not new ones. There is legislation now in Congress that says just that. It makes no sense to fund something new, when you have not maintained what you currently have.

Susann Kaltwasser said...

I mean the best location for a bridge is already taken. Fix those first!

Curt said...

People got to work and church just fine before cars had dominion over our cities. It is fair to ask you to pay the cost of your choice to live in West Salem. If that cost is too much to bear; move back to the east side.

Car crashes are a leading cause of death in this country. Subsidizing and engineering car dependent place like west salem increase peoples' exposure to that danger. Then there is the obesity epidemic. It does not serve the public to continue to subsidize the culture of fast food, drive thrus, strip malls, parking lots, obesity, depression and car crashes in Salem. Even if it is popular.

Curt said...

New York City has the highest life expectancy in the country. Anti-smoking initiatives and public works initiatives to promote cycling with protected infrastructure have gone hand in hand to achieve those outcomes.

Americans' dependence on cars also poses an often-overlooked public safety risk, Jackson said.

“If you live in suburbia, you’re much more likely to die in a pool of blood than someone who lives in an urban environment” because of the high rate of traffic fatalities, though the image of the violent inner city persists.

Anonymous said...

I don't see what is so difficult about taking a bus at 10:30 pm/7 am—assuming there were a bus at these times, which there should be. Biking doesn't seem that hard either, depending on the distance. I frequently took the bus and biked at late/early hours during college, when I lived somewhere that had a good bus system.

Curt said...

I ride to work 7 miles one way. Frequently at night. So do a few of the people I work with that live in West Salem. There are trade offs anywhere you choose to live. Whatever hardships are involved are a result of those choices. Many choose to spend thousands more on gas to commute from Portland to Salem. We shouldn't be subsidizing those trips either. But for many we do... with free parking.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

A few things...maybe repetitive...

1) re: "Comparing going to work or going to church to smoking is kind of silly. They are not the same." Of course they are not the same! Just to echo Curt, the terms of the comparison are different: the obesogenic and carbon/arsenic/lead-polluting drive-alone trip is like smoking. Excessive car use is a public health matter. (Without specifying mode, the abstract trip to work or church is not at all like smoking.)

2) The position here is that we should have a transportation system with a robust menu of choices so that people feel realistically they have options. It should be a realistic option for a son-in-law (or any others) to think, "hmm, should I take the bus today, or maybe a bike ride in the retained summer night heat would be especially refreshing, etc." (You may underestimate how pleasant a ride at night, especially in summer, can be!) Our excessive subsidy for auto use exacerbates difficulties in funding options for things other than the drive-alone trip. People who value personal choice, personal autonomy, should recognize that our current system of subsidy for the drive-alone trip is highly constraining and exacts many social costs.

And, it should be remembered also, the goal isn't to eliminate all car trips. Cars are really good for some things and some kinds of trips. I nutshell it thusly: I never want to live in a world where emergency response is only bike-powered. Emergency response is an excellent use for carbon polluting gas combustion vehicles! It's so many of the other trips that don't need to be gas-powered and drive-alone.

A commenter on an SJ note parodies the position and looking at it might help clarify: "Yes, I'd love to see moms on bikes burdened with three kids dropping them off at three different destination and then getting to work on time. I hope employers would cut them some slack on snow days. Do we all have wear Chairman Mao suits to fit the progressive transportation model?" The goal is to enforce nothing as compulsory.

The goal is to do a better job of capturing costs that are currently externalized, to give people better pricing signalling for decision making, and to create a system with robust and real choice. We need a transportation system toolbox so you can choose the right tool for a trip. Right now we have one hammer only in it, and it doesn't saw or turn screws very well.

3) Folks should read the two Cherriots studies out now. Because of structural problems in West Salem, it will be very difficult to have good transit without tolling the bridges. If we want demand for transit, we will have to cut the artificial subsidies propping up drive-alone trips across the bridges. This is true for the wider city, of course, but the problem is especially acute in West Salem.

Increasingly it looks like a position that says, "we want good transit in West Salem" and "crossing the bridges and plentiful parking must remain free" may be incoherent.

(Thanks for the lundreport and bloomberg links, Curt!)

Anonymous said...

I'm for tolling and living on the east side of the river if that is where you spend most of your work and/or free time. I don't know why anyone who lives in Polk County would choose doctors, church, shopping, work in Marion County, and vice versa. I'd never live in Polk County--because most of my life happens in Marion County. And the parts that happen west of the river, I'd gladly pay a toll the handful of times a year I need to go over there.

Curt said...

Word. I'm just as happy to pay a toll to go mountain biking for the afternoon in Polk Co. as I am to pay for parking for an afternoon in the Pearl.