Tuesday, June 27, 2017

City Council, June 26th - Part 2, a Little More on the CIP

Last night The Capital Improvement Plan for 2018-2022 was at Council. It is worthwhile to look at the totality of its transportation projects, but in the face of the gloriously, swelteringly sunny weekend, nothing seemed important enough to rush a post before Council was meeting. Crucially, there was no compelling reason to argue that the current one should be changed.

But there are reasons to think we might want to modify our approach for future ones. So the walk-through and comments here are aimed not so much at this one, but at procedures for the next one.

First off, as we argue and debate about the Salem River Crossing and the extent to which Autos First should be our priority, here's a place where the City should communicate more directly about the subsidies for driving. Most of the funding for road projects in the CIP does not come from car user fees, and instead represents transfers from things like home and property value. Locally, we don't fund very much road work at all by means of the gas tax, licensing and registration fees, or other fees directly associated with car use and driving. Other things and other activities instead support road work, and it would be helpful for the City to talk about this more. Drivers don't pay their way and therefore it is especially appropriate to talk about why and how much to subsidize driving.

Lots of property tax related funding here,
URA and SDC funding
A subset of that worth highlighting is the amount of road work funded by new or old development. Previously we had the $100 million road bond funded by property taxes. That's essentially done, and now we are tapping a lot of Urban Renewal Funds and various flavors of System Development Charges, including those at Salem Renewable Energy and Technology Center. (SRETP on the chart.)

The gas tax contribution is very small
About specific projects maybe there are only things to say on two of them.

The TIGER program is still included as the primary source of funding for the big McGilchrist Street rebuild, and this seems doubtful still. It remains a wish and very hypothetical source of funding, especially as the current administration does not seem much inclined to support TIGER and its aims.

The $200,000 for two-way conversation of State Street downtown seems impossibly small, and its project description far too brief.

How are Projects Distributed?

Instead let's take a look at the way the totality of the projects break down.  Here's a chart compiled off of the CIP project list.

Some important caveats:
  • Many projects have multiple funding sources. I assigned categories based on the largest one and also ignored local match funding, often about 10% of a project. 
  • So even though it's in a spreadsheet, it is supposed to be a cocktail napkin chart, not a precise allocation. The margin of error seems like it could be around +/- 3%. I don't think it's as big as 5%, but it's well beyond a decimal point. The important information here is not the numeric label, but just the general size of each slice.
CIP transportation projects by project type (not in the CIP)
The biggest category is the most difficult to assess. "Mixed" projects are often a kind of "complete street" project. While they add sidewalks, enhanced crosswalks, bike lanes and other multi-modal facilities, they also often add auto capacity to and increase design speed of streets. They are mainly attempts to do it all, and so offer both good and bad features. It's important to say they are not all bad! Most of them offer real upgrades for people on foot and on bike. But they aren't always as good as they could be. The $22 million for McGilchrist dominates - if you take that out, the proportions look very different, and maybe we'll do that another time.
  • Brown Road Urban Upgrade
  • McGlichrist Rebuild
  • Hilfiker at Commercial Intersection
  • RR Crossing at Salem Industrial Drive
  • 12th and 13th Streets at Marion, including an enhanced crosswalk on 13th
  • Broadway Safety Redesign, Pine to Parkway
  • State Street Two-Way Change downtown
  • Portland Road Improvements, including several enhanced crosswalks
By this count, then, projects that primarily and unambiguously benefit people walking and biking are the second largest slice, and that's nice to see.
  • Downtown Art Pedestals
  • Downtown Alley Improvements
  • Union Street Bikeway
  • Downtown Streetscape Project
  • Rosemont Sidewalks
  • Bike Lanes and Crosswalks on Middle Commercial
  • Five Safety Crossings near Schools and on the Winter-Maple Bikeway
About the same size is a group of projects mainly aimed at auto capacity and auto traffic improvements.
  • 12th Street Turn Lane at Fairview
  • Battle Creek Road - Payment to Developer
  • Kuebler Widening at OR-22
  • Citywide Signal Improvements 1
  • Citywide Signal Improvements 2
  • Citywide Signal Improvements 3
  • Kuebler Turn Lane at Turner Road
  • North River Road Signal Interconnect
  • Liberty at Division (Police Station)
Totally new roads are also mainly aimed at auto capacity. While they will meet current standards with bike lanes and sidewalks as appropriate, they are in commercial areas or are remote from walkable neighborhoods, and will mainly serve cars. And they will create a future maintenance obligation for which no funding is allocated.
  • Fisher Road Extension to Market
  • Partial Funding for Lone Oak Bridge (this is going to come back to Council for more analysis and discussion, as I understand it)
  • Gaia Street, Phase 2
  • Gaffin Road at STREC
Even though they are "capital" projects, there are a couple of projects that really are just big maintenance projects.
  • River Road Slide Stabilization
  • Citywide Paving Rehabilitation
And then a very small slice of "other." It rounds to 1% and is not important to consider in any detail in this context. (Though of course the seismic study is super important!)
  • Center Street Bridge Seismic Study
  • 12th Street at McGilchrist - Payment to Developer
Realistically, Can it Be Improved?

So a fair question is, What would you do differently? Where is there fat, misallocation of resources, or misplaced priorities? The pie slice that is devoted primarily to bike/ped things is substantial, about 15% of the whole. In the "mixed" pie slice, there are several projects that substantially benefit walking and biking. Together there's a large commitment to walking and biking in this project list, and we are well above 1% for walking and biking here. (The designs still lag a bit, not always as robust or up-to-date as they could be, and they maybe deserve a grade of "B" rather than an "A" - but a B is still a good grade!)

I think that because we are outside of the 2008 bond measure, while the overall balance in the project mix still has more "auto capacity" than I would like, it is not possible to argue that it is unreasonable. The bond facilitated more big auto capacity projects, and maybe it's a good thing we are out of it now. It is possible to argue that this list can be improved, but it would be a perverse argument to say that it is unreasonable or deeply flawed. Most observers would probably say it was very balanced and advantaged walking and biking in very good ways.

The funding for the bike/ped projects comes from downtown Urban Renewal funds and from State and Federal funding sources. These are competitive and go through several layers of vetting and scoring. Lots of review at SKATS, for example. So it's not like they are chosen randomly or like there is a bunch of money left on the table for other bike/ped projects.

So in general terms, and in the current system in which we operate, it is not a credible argument to say this list is flawed and should have been done differently. There aren't specific mistakes you can point to.

Towards the Future

What should follow directly from this list?
  • More resources for two-way conversion of State Street and a protected bike lane
  • Lots more attention and resources to the Center Street bridge seismic retrofit, emergency and incident response plans on the bridges
  • Mission creep in the downtown Streetscape project! It's said that no changes to the auto travel lanes are being considered, but changes to parking and striping, along with protected bike lanes, should get more attention.
And a larger point. Project lists usually have a political component. You have to spread investment out among all the wards of the city, balance it between modes, and be opportunistic about available funding sources and programs. There are Equity matters to consider.

Strong Towns also argues for incremental, bottom-up kinds of project selection.

Both of these end up with a piece-meal approach.

How hard, really, do we test projects
in the CIP by these standards?
But as the City is developing its new Strategic Plan, is there a place for a more centrally planned and more coherent approach, one that really tries to select projects that advance the higher policy goals?

From here, if the Salem River Crossing looms as the prospect of allocating at least half-a billion to a single highway project, shouldn't instead we load up our CIP with smaller projects that seek to enhance cross-river mobility and obviate the need for the giant bridge and highway? The refusal so far to do so seems like a serious omission.

And shouldn't we circle back more carefully to policies like those in the Comprehensive Plan that seek to "decrease reliance on the SOV as the dominant means of travel"? We haven't really tried very hard on this.

Delayed Repairs and Maintenance - June 1st Open House
Finally, if one of the central problems identified in the Strategic Planning process is that of deferred maintenance. Are we following a "Fix it First" policy closely enough? Several of the projects collected in the "auto capacity" bucket here are not instances of "Fix it First."

Part of the narrative description of each project in the CIP could assess how it contributes to larger policy goals.

The CIP as it currently stands looks more like a series of discrete projects, a little haphazardly chosen, rather than any instantiation of a vision and priorities for mobility in Salem. Would more of a values-driven, top-down approach be so bad? (If we followed values rather than politics, the SRC might not fare as well!) Though liberal urbanists like to cite Jane Jacobs, her critique had strong libertarian and conservative strands, and she was critical of central planning. So there are urbanist arguments for limits to how far something "values-driven" should really go. But if we really want to reduce drive-alone trips, want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, want to do a better job with preserve and maintain, want to stretch our transportation investments farther, maybe we should consider more of a values approach to the CIP.

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