By Dave Alden
We often make spending decisions as households differently than as communities. And the difference isn't good for our communities.
As households, we use a two-step process when considering a purchase. First, we think about whether we want something. Then we decide if it's worth the price.
"Gee, those cookies look good. Oops, not for $7.99."
"I'd like to try that cheese. Okay, I'm willing to spend $4.50."
"Wow, I want that Porsche! $85,000? No way."
This decision process seems obvious, even self-evident. But we often drop the second step when considering municipal infrastructure. Instead, the discussion revolves around whether we want something, such as a new park or a widened freeway, rather than whether it would be the best use of our dollars. Or if we can afford it at all.
An example of the blind spot is now on display in Petaluma. The discussion of the proposed Rainier Avenue connector has largely focused on the pros and cons of having another route between McDowell Boulevard and Petaluma Boulevard North. The cost of $100 million, give or take a rounding error, is usually in the background.
I talk regularly with friends who are passionate about local land use. In discussing the Rainier Avenue connector, we've noted the advantages of improved routing for transit and local trips, traffic congestion relief (although the induced traffic effect will limit the benefit), and reduced travel times to the hospital.
We've also identified the negatives, such as the possibility of new sprawl and the incentive to tweak flood plain rules, leading to inappropriate development.
I come down slightly in favor of the connector. Others feel differently. But we agree it's a close call.
But that discussion only addresses the first question, whether we'd like to have the Rainier Avenue connector at all. As soon as we factor in the $100 million cost, support disappears. None of us can justify spending $100 million given other community needs.
But many in the community seem to ignore cost when discussing the project. Oft-heard statements are, "We need it, so it should be built" or "We voted for it, so we should have it." (The vote in question was silent on funding, so exemplifies my point.)
It's not surprising that many have lost touch with the costs of the infrastructure improvements. For the past 70 years, infrastructure funding has been reliant on dollars from Sacramento or Washington, D.C. Although the funds were our own dollars coming home, it seemed like free money, dependent only on electing a representative who could pull the right strings.
But that funding model is fatally flawed. Not only were the infrastructure improvements not free, but maintenance costs weren't factored in. It was a model that induced cities to sprawl further than they could afford to maintain. It led to cities of potholes and deteriorating sewer lines, which is what we got. Plus the funding is drying up. (Anyone been watching the news from Washington, D.C.?)
So, if we stop living in a make-believe land of infrastructure funding, what would a $100 million connector actually cost? If we fund it out of our pockets, it's over $1,700 per person. Not per household, but per person. If we fund it over 30 years using tax-free bonds, it would be over $80 per person per year. If we suggest that new development pay for it, it would cost $40,000 per building start for the next 2,500 homes. And those homes likely wouldn't be built with that level of burden on them. (Nor is it legal to put the costs of fixing current problems on future development.)