It's unfortunate that in advance of next Wednesday's City Council work session on the Salem River Crossing project, a.k.a. the Third Bridge, councilors and the public are being fed a bunch of pseudo-facts that run the gamut from clearly false to questionable.
As noted in a recent post of mine, even though in recent years the Salem City Council has shifted from being dominated by conservatives to a 6-3 progressive majority, the unpaid volunteer councilors and mayor are dependent on City of Salem staff -- which includes employees who have been working on the Salem River Crossing for a long time, and thus are deeply committed to it.
Having worked in state government (health planning) as an executive service manager back in the 70's and 80's, I'm well aware of how staff can control volunteer boards/councils/committees, etc. via the information and policy options provided to them.
But this doesn't make it right, especially when the consequences of misleading information are so massive, as in the case of the billion dollar (with financing costs, inflation, and contingencies) Third Bridge.
So the highly knowledgeable Salem Breakfast on Bikes blogger, who focuses on transportation and land use issues, has been doing a great service with his series of posts about how City of Salem staff and Mayor Bennett are doing their best to put a positive spin on what I, and others, like to call the Billion Dollar Boondoggle.
Hopefully city councilors will pay close attention to the Breakfast on Bikes posts, which I've listed below along with excerpts from each. Together they paint a disturbing portrait of how misleading certain Third Bridge information being provided to citizens and city councilors is.
Mayor Spins SRC at State of the City Address -- updated.
Yesterday the Mayor gave an annual "State of the City" address, and the Mayor lamented difficulties on the Salem Rivercrossing and tried to rally supporters in the face of increasingly doubtful prospects for the SRC. It was spin. With gloom-and-doom alarmism, he shaded matters to put his case in the best light and verged sometimes on outright misrepresentation.
...To say that we need the SRC to be "resilient" is to misunderstand the opportunity cost: If we spend a billion dollars on a giant new bridge and highway, that's money we will not likely be spending on other valuable good things. Local taxes and funding sources would be necessary in addition to whatever State or Federal funding somehow materializes (and the official stance is that the SRC is a low priority for State or Federal funding). There would be debt that would affect the resiliency of local government, also. We already have a gap between revenues and budgets.
...Finally, the SRC would harm bicycle connectivity throughout the whole city, induce more driving throughout, increase speeds, and in no way helps us "nurture" bicycling. The Mayor plainly does not know what he is talking about. The SRC is in most every way harmful for bicycling. The SRC would also suck up huge amounts of discretionary transportation spending and eliminate important funding sources for sidewalks, bike lanes, and crosswalks.
The SRC's Disconnect on Decongestion Pricing.
And here is what might be the single most important take-away. This chart isn't from the SRC. But it is drawn from the table just below, table 5 in this "Revenue Projections" memo. The table is from the SRC's own materials, and the data the chart expresses comes from the SRC's own internal assumptions.
As soon as we toll the bridges - poof! All our problems with congestion go away on the existing bridges.
If we build a new bridge and toll it and the others, we will have speedy crossing on all three. As soon as we toll, any new bridge becomes wholly superfluous. Tolling forces the question: Why do we also need a bridge?
We could think of tolling then as "decongestion pricing," as tolling looks to be highly effective with decongestant action. And if we use tolling not to fund a new bridge, but as a policy measure to manage demand better, even implemented with variable rates so that off-peak crossing is cheaper, then it is obvious to think of it as decongestion pricing.
Apart from the projections and congestion relief, the memo also clearly recommended tolling: "Tolls are the fairest option."
...So: The SRC recommends tolling as fair, and the SRC shows tolling dramatically reduces congestion.
Decongestion pricing should be at the center of our analysis, not building a new bridge.
But decongestion pricing is largely erased from any analysis other than the context of funding. In particular, the traffic forecasts are uncoupled from any analysis of tolling. We can see this in the omnibus Q & Aposted in the Work Session materials.
...From those bullet points, the model forecasts a 5% or 13% increase in vehicles on the current bridges in 2040. But under all the scenarios of tolls more than $1.00, future traffic on the bridges is reduced below current levels, not increased. And even at the $1.00 level it obtains a clear reduction for 15 years. In any tolling scenario these vehicle counts are wildly off.
...Tolling and decongestion pricing are some of the most powerful tools we have, maybe even the most powerful tool period, to reduce congestion and better manage bridge capacity. Since tolls are unpopular, the SRC has instead minimized them and focused on making the case for building a new bridge.
Q & A on Induced Demand Biased, Depends on Out of Date Scholarship.
At the center of the materials published for the Wednesday Work Session on the SRC is an omnibus Q & A, a staff report arranged as a series of questions and answers. It is almost medieval in form, a modern quaestio or Sentences! It aspires to be a Summa.
You know that's an ironic setup. The report is supposed to be magisterial and neutral, but it is biased and unrepresentative. Too often it is ideologically motivated. Rather than the best of medieval scholasticism, it is the worst of it, narrow, cramped, and oriented with a determined teleology.
Here we will look at Induced Demand.
The Sources are too Few and are Biased
In the discussion of induced demand and traffic forecasting the material is shaped in order to position autoism as a "neutral" description of reality, the natural order of things, rather than a highly ideological and heavily subsidized position resulting from multiple policy decisions over years and even decades.
...As a concept and term, it is significant they prefer "latent" demand to "induced" demand. Latent demand is pent-up, already existing demand that is frustrated and which a new bridge might solve and satisfy. "Induced" demand is new demand brought into being by a new bridge. The difference expresses an ideological preference for the bridge as a solution to a problem. It is another instance of bias and failure to be even-handed.
...All in all, the perspective in the Q & A is one from the 20th century, struggling to keep up. It is old, it is being discarded or modified, and it does not represent current best practices or the state of scholarship. It looks, in fact, like adding epicycles to the old Ptolemaic system with earth at the center when a heliocentric system explains things much better.
SRC Cost Estimate and 40% Contingency Nearly Certain to be Inadequate.
But it does not seem like a stretch to say that the SRC is still in a high [earthquake] risk area, and that reinforcing the current bridges still is a better bet - not a certainty, but is a better probability - than building a new bridge at the current Preferred Alternative's location.
If you were placing a sports bet - think about that big football game next week - which would you choose?
Would you bet on the Preferred Alternative? Or would you bet on reinforcing the existing bridges? Betting on the SRC here seems like it is easily the longer-shot and that the odds on the current crossing locations are better.
The "Findings" in the Geological Resources Technical Report Addendum from Sept 2016 should not inspire confidence. It is a tissue of weasel words and hardly constitutes an actual finding. Clearly they are concerned and warning about difficulties discovered during construction, and have written a very evasive and "CYA" conclusion.
Even in the final bullet, which presumes "proper geotechnical investigations...proper engineering design" and "mitigation measures," they still can't bring themselves to use a positive verb of certainty or confidence, and hide behind "could." There's a lot of risk and uncertainty hiding in plain sight.
...There is no reason to think a 40% contingency would be adequate here. There is every reason to think 40% is way too small. Again, do you bet 40% is enough, or do [you] bet a much larger contingency would be necessary?
SRC Q&A Misleads on Greenhouse Gas Emissions.
We have to drive less often and drive fewer miles. Any plan that fails to face this squarely will be a sham. SRC claims that we can drive more, drive faster, and still meet greenhouse gas goals, is bogus. Adopted plans must support VMT [Vehicle Miles Traveled] reductions.
...If we need to reduce greenhouse gases drastically, an incremental reduction in tailpipe emissions will not be enough. We need to drive less, not drive more and drive faster.
Path dependency is an issue. If we build a giant new bridge and highway, it will be more difficult to reduce driving holistically after the bridge is constructed. If drive-alone trips are less costly in general, transit will seem more unattractive, for example. The more auto capacity we build, the more future reductions we will need to make, and the harder they will be.
If on the other hand, we don't build the bridge, it will be easier to focus more on transit and other non-auto mobility.
If we think less driving will be necessary, we should not be building things for more driving.
Traffic Modeling and False Precision in the SRC Q and A.
The big Q & A on the SRC has several sections that use traffic modeling, but no section on the modeling itself. The document assumes the truthfulness and usefulness of a set of traffic forecasts for 2040.
I want to step back a little and ask some questions about the way we handle the traffic forecasts. Above all, the SRC team, and traffic planners here generally, both in public employment and in private contracting, pretty much everyone involved in traffic engineering, elide the uncertainty around forecasts. If there is any statistical uncertainty around the projections, you'd never know it.
There are also a couple of other ways that planners play fast-and-loose with the forecasting.
Traffic Forecasts Generally Deserve Margins of Error
As we receive the forecasts now - and they are delivered rather ex cathedra - they are full of false precision.
...By eliding uncertainty ranges, it becomes possible to make silly claims for the SRC.
(And even if you accept the numbers straight-up, come on, a 10% improvement for $500 million?!?!?! And more likely a billion with cost overruns and escalations? 10% or even 15% is an amazingly tiny return on a huge, huge investment.)
"Daunting" Q and A Casts Unfavorable Light on Planning Goal 1 and DEIS.
The Q & A for the SRC Council Work Session is a funny thing. It's supposed to be neutral and even-handed, but it is not.
In the introduction they admit "some of the references may not be the seminal work or the latest on the topic."
Why doesn't this Q & A represent the best state of the research on a given topic? This is a strange thing to admit from the start - unless that's an indirect admission that the document is already biased.
From here, based on the section on Induced Demand, it has looked like apologetics for the bridge, and not a neutral analysis. So omitting "seminal work" could be consistent with a pro-bridge bias.
But more than this, they say "providing in a single document all the information necessary...is a daunting undertaking."
But isn't "providing all the information" what the draft Environmental Impact Statement was supposed to do?
It is possible to read this also as an admission that the DEIS [Draft Environmental Impact Statement] wasn't written to do what it was supposed to do, but was a biased document with a rigged process.
These admissions or concessions in the introduction sound humble and inviting, but they might instead be signs of deeper rot, an indictment of the whole preceding SRC process.