Sunday, December 27, 2015

Our Habits in Modeling and Overbuilding

Much of the critique and skepticism about planning for a new Police Station is based on what the resulting bond measure will yield in increased taxes. It comes at things from the perspective of the budget of the individual citizen.

Plenty has been said - and will be said - on that, so instead let's consider our habits of modeling and whether there might be other reasons to be skeptical of the planning process for a new Police Station.

Let's take a tour through a couple of local historical examples of planning that seemed "wise and prudent" at the time, but which history has shown in fact to be far from wise and prudent. Consistently, it seems we overbuild things based on aggressive modeling.

(If you know of local civic/public disciplines in which modeling is surprisingly accurate, it would be good to know. Leave a comment about that, if you would. Success is probably relatively invisible compared to the screeching and grinding and protest in the face of failure or inaccuracy.)

Even if you do not agree that the situation with a new Police Station demands skepticism, it should not be a stretch to agree that skepticism is totally plausible and reasonable. It's not crazy at all. And since skepticism is reasonable, it is also reasonable to ask for more proof and argument from proponents.

Modeling Parking Demand

Back in the 1970s, it seemed wise and prudent to build big, public parking garages downtown.

An older facade on the Chemeketa Parkade  
Unfortunately we have found that we don't need them all or we don't need them as big.

Marion, Chemeketa, Pringle all operate ≤ 50% full
There's a huge surplus of parking in City garages.  At peak the Liberty Parkade is about 60% full, and the rest operate under 50% full at peak. And the Urban Renewal Agency struggles with a substantial budget deficit in the parking district.

The garages themselves are also holes of under-productive land and building in the urban fabric of downtown.

Our parking garages are a clear example of overbuilt infrastructure.

Modeling Future Driving

Throughout the 1990s, 2000s, and even 2010s, it has seemed wise and prudent to plan and build big, wide public roads.

Consistent error:  61 out of 61 projections were too high!
The traffic modeling that "proved" the need for them has totally broken down, however. Previous and stubborn assumptions about constant growth and about the rate of growth are almost certainly wrong. Even the highway-happy Feds are down-sizing projection models. And in fact a Wisconsin Judge recently ruled that projections for a highway expansion were unfounded.

The difference between ODOT's 2005 projections
and the new FHWA 2014 projections
But our current planning here hasn't caught up this structural change, and we are currently planning for a half-billion dollar bridge, whose annual debt service is estimated to be $45 million a year for 20 years, but which we will likely not need.

November 2014 Presentation to City Council
Additionally, currently we can't maintain properly the roads we already have, and we seemingly accept a consistent rate of death on our roads, so why are we adding to the expensive maintenance and safety burden with a bunch of shiny new road expansion?

The Third Bridge and a lot of our road widening are also clear examples of overbuilt infrastructure.

Modeling Future Police Demand

So now we face new modeling that suggests we need not just a 75,000 square foot facility for our new Police Station, but a 150,000 square foot facility.

November 2015 presentation to Council Subcommittee
What are the error bars, the confidence interval on this modeling? (148,041 is ridiculously precise!)

Even with big error bars, some folks will say it is "wise and prudent" to build a very big new Police Station in the near future. But what are the odds that in 20, 30, or 40 years a very big new Police Station will instead be an albatross, over-sized and a problem because it costs too much to operate?

Currently on ice: Fire Station 11
We already have moth-balled fire stations in Salem.

Even if we agree construction costs in 20 years will be much higher than today, maybe planning a smaller facility and letting the next generation deal with a second phase of expansion is actually more prudent than trying to anticipate that expansion today with an even bigger box. In this scenario, having unused, overbuilt capacity will be more costly to the future (and to the current generation who will pay for it) than asking them to fund and construct their own expansion - one that can more exactly be tailored to new conditions and new technologies in the future.

There is risk in building too-big just as there is risk in not building big enough, and we don't talk enough about the risk and opportunity costs in too-big.

Transportation is the thing here, so it's true that opinions here on police aren't deeply informed.

Police work is very labor-intensive, and it may be that modeling for staffing and space is way more predictable there than in other domains of modeling.

But we should also remember the areas of vast uncertainty: the Washington Post recently cited an FBI official saying, for example, "The FBI’s system for tracking fatal police shootings is a 'travesty'..." Unfortunately, there are important reasons also to hold a careful skepticism about statistics and modeling with regard to police work.

More generally there is strong evidence that our prevailing approaches to modeling across multiple disciplines badly overstate certainty, project with overstated assumptions about growth or too confidently apply current conditions to the future, and therefore overstate future needs.

Overstated Modeling Justifies Doubt

Modeling is inherently uncertain, but as it is practiced here in Salem now, it seems full of false confidence and false precision. In order to make better guesses and projections about the future, almost certainly we need better discussions of the uncertainty.

It is not therefore unreasonable to say that folks who argue in tandem with the City for a larger future police station have an extra burden of proof and argument. No one is saying we don't need a new facility badly and urgently. There is broad agreement on that point. But lots of folks have doubts about how big and fancy it needs to be.

Proponents of BIG might yet be right, but they need to prove it. Citizens are being asked to take too much on faith, and citizens can point to plenty of examples where the experts were wrong and the faith in them misplaced.


Jim Scheppke said...

I attended the last two Police Facility Council Subcommittee meetings and listened to the presentations from DLR Group. As I understand it their modeling is based largely on a "square footage per officer" standard. Trouble is, they said they are assuming that Salem will ADD an average of 2.4 officers per year to the force over the 20-year planning timeframe. This is almost certain NOT to happen. It hasn't happened in recent years, and Salem is facing the need to CUT the General Fund budget over the next five years by $16.5 million if there are no new revenue sources, according to the latest "Five Year Forecast" unveiled a few weeks ago at the Budget Committee meeting. This is a good example of your contention that modeling often goes bad. You start with a bogus assumption and bogus modeling is the outcome.

Susann Kaltwasser said...

I appreciate your insight about overbuilding. Wallace Rd intersection at Glen Creek Road is a clear example of something that is too big and not necessary. Everything that you predicted about bike and pedestrian use has come true. Even the cars are not getting along well with the design. As two lanes comes up hill and merges into one there is an unnecessary point of conflict. Each time I drive through that area and see only one or two cars ahead of me seeking to enter Wallace Road, I get upset to think that this has cost taxpayers $10 million that could have been used for something much more useful.

When I participated in a study of Lancaster Drive back in the 1990s it was stated that if you build it, they will come. Which has been true for so many cases. The wider you make a road, the more people use it. Until it is over crowd and becomes more dangerous and less hospitable to bikes or pedestrians. The whole study was to figure out how to move cars more efficiently without adding lanes. It is now being implemented in several places.

But while we seemed to have figured out a few things on Lancaster, the City fails to figure out how not to build new Lancasters all around town. Kuebler Boulevard being a prime example of a street intended to be a by-pass, being turned into another kind of is Wallace Road and South Commercial!

One of the principles that we were told during that study, is that if you do not increase capacity, people will seek alternate ways to travel. Increase in congestion encourages use of alternate modes of travel, as well. So, as you well know, this is why we become so car dependent and less interested in buses, or bike paths. We keep building more capacity when we should be allowing congestion to lead us to alternatives. This cycle is both expensive and futile!

Question is, however, how do we get the planners (and I use that term sarcastically) to do better planning?

Where do we find the leadership that is enlightened enough to think outside the current trend?

Susann Kaltwasser said...

Regarding the police facility...I like your insights! One of the things that baffles me is why we need to have such expensive storage space in this facility. A huge area is being set aside for evidence storage. Couldn't we put that in some less expensive place?

Then the City Council has its first opportunity for review and the public will finally get a chance to comment, I sure hope that people turn out to say something. I would love to see you and your followers step up to ask some very needed questions. It won't happen without some increased citizen participation.