Thursday, September 28, 2006

Why Planning for Public Projects Doesn't Work - Part 2

As described in excruciating detail in a previous post, the current planning processes used for major public projects often fail to produce successful outcomes.

What causes the problem?

Several things:

1. The process of planning and implementation takes too long. Much too long. The process takes so long that it’s no wonder people aren’t happy with the outcome. The conditions that the original planning was based on change considerably by the time the project actually gets underway. The cost goes up dramatically. Property owners in the areas of project options may see their property values decline while waiting for a decision to be made.

And perhaps even more significantly, there is no real public accountability for the outcome, because the people who made the decisions about what to do may no longer be around when the project actually gets underway. For example, the process to complete the planning and get the funding to begin the North Shore Connector took so long that not a single local elected official who was in office when the original decisions were made is still in power. The Mayor of Pittsbugh is different. Every member of Pittsburgh City Council is different. And in fact, not only the leaders but the entire form of Allegheny County Government is different, since the planning for the North Shore Connector was done under the Allegheny County Commissioners, prior to the new County Charter. The same is true at the state and federal levels. The Governor is different, and many of the state legislators and members of Congress are different.

2. The public participation process expects busy people to engage in theoretical discussions about hypothetical options, rather than reacting to concrete proposals. The typical planning process asks people to understand and comment on numerous options at the earliest stages of planning, even though many of these options may be known to be unrealistic or inferior from the beginning. Most people figure that they might as well wait until the planners come up with a concrete recommendation before taking the process seriously.

3. The process isn’t effective in coming up with the best solutions. The “master list” of options gets defined at an early stage when no one is taking the process seriously, and then the analysis focuses primarily on weeding out the least desirable options. The result is that in the end, the process picks the “least worst” option. In contrast, truly effective planning and engineering would start by defining the type of project that would be most desirable, and then figuring out how to make it work as well as possible.

4. The community doesn’t really support the process. It’s extremely easy for any opponent to just ignore the planning process and then object to the conclusion after it’s reached. Elected officials, the courts, and the media don't say to these opponents, “Sorry, too late. If you didn’t participate in the process and raise your concerns there, then you have no standing to object now.”

5. Planning is done project by project, rather than as part of a longer-range master plan. This can mean that the ability to pick the best design for one project may be constrained by the poor choices already made about another project, even though both projects could have been planned so that neither interfered with the other. Conversely, it’s hard to make good choices about one project when it’s not clear what other projects it will ultimately interact with.

6. Planning (and implementation) is penny-wise and pound foolish. Key features of projects are dropped in an effort to spread limited funding across a larger number of projects. Southwestern Pennsylvania probably leads the nation in having half-interchanges on interstate highways (i.e., where you can get off but you can’t get back on going in the same direction), because funding constraints meant that either one full interchange could be built (forcing a choice about which community gets the interchange) or two half-interchanges. Highways and interchanges are built where no one lives because it’s cheaper and less disruptive to acquire property there, despite the obvious effect that will have on sprawl and disinvestment in communities where the improvements are not made.

Even these six items are not really causes, they’re merely symptoms of a deeper cause.

The real cause is that the funding for most major projects comes from somewhere else. It comes from Harrisburg or Washington, but not Southwestern Pennsylvania. The vast majority of highway and transit funding comes from federal and state funds, not local government, and there is no regional source of transportation funding here at all. The majority of funding for major capital projects, whether they be industrial sites, cultural facilities, or riverfront trails, comes from Harrisburg or Washington, not local government, and there is no regional source of funding for these kinds of projects at all.

Isn’t “outside” funding a good thing?

Unfortunately, it may look like "free money" but it is far from free:

1. Most of the delays in getting a project underway are due to either the delays in getting a funding decision from Harrisburg or Washington, or the delays inherent in the planning processes the federal or state governments require in order to even be considered for funding. Even after the planning is done according to regulation, there is no guarantee of when or even if funding will be provided.

2. Not only does the delay increase costs, but the specific requirements imposed on projects by state or federal government can increase the costs as well. Some studies have indicated that the requirements imposed by the federal government in order to build a road are so expensive that they may even exceed the amount of federal funding that is provided.

3. The fact that the planning processes are mandated by state or federal government means that they are not “owned” by the community. Local agencies often engage in planning processes because they're required to, not because the community thinks it’s a good way to plan.

4. The fact that much of the funding from Harrisburg and Washington is provided project-by-project means that it’s virtually impossible to create a larger or longer-range plan. There is no assurance that the community will be able to get the money for one project, much less for a series of interrelated, complementary projects.

5. If the community changes its mind about which project is most important, it can't shift the funding to another project. It either proceeds with the approved project or forfeits the funding that has finally been awarded.

What’s the answer?

More on that in a future post.


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