Best of Blog: PennDOT Fiddles


I'm pretty passionate about what we do here at Strong Towns, but I'm generally able to operate in an emotional zone that is short of anger. The facts that led to this essay pushed those boundaries.

It began with an award given by the American Council of Engineering Companies -- a group of "professionals" whose self-proclaimed exclusive (which means: to the exclusion of any other consideration) charge is their members' business interests and profitability -- and gleefully accepted by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, an organization woefully inept at maintaining their own transportation infrastructure, particularly bridges and overpasses (they rank worst in the nation).

This is akin to Goldman Sacs giving an Innovation in Securitization award to the Securities and Exchange Commission for SEC's role in the establishment of Collateralized Debt Obligations. Except, imagine not only that Goldman offered the award and not only that the SEC accepted it but that the SEC then ran a press release and made a big media event out of it.

Create a veneer of compassion by throwing in some very poor people living in dilapidated neighborhoods the add some typecast politicians, a casino and a stadium, and you have all the workings of a dramatic play, America circa 2012. The combination made me angry.

But instead of walking away from this mess, we're bringing the conversation to Pennsylvania. Thanks to some very generous donations, Strong Towns will be in Pennsylvania between January 6 and January 12, sharing our message from one side of the state to the other. We are going to release the full details of our trip this week, so check back or sign up for our newletter to be notified.

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Last month I wrote about an article that appeared in PE, the official magazine of the National Society of Professional Engineers (Engineering's Echo Chamber, May 29, 2012). In the article, I took the engineering profession (of which I am a member) to task for blaming everyone but themselves for America's failing infrastructure. I indicated that engineers were becoming irrelevant because, without asking and answering some tough questions of itself, the profession will continue to lack the key insights necessary address the problems we face today.

The following day, I posed what some of those questions should be (13 Questions for the Engineering Profession, May 30, 2012). And while I did receive a generous offer from NSPE to write a column for an upcoming issue of PE, there were no engineers that responded substantively to any of this. I did receive a couple of emails and we had one commenter (who was so stereotypical I highly suspect he was a plant). Their argument to me was essentially the same: Engineers don't make land use decisions and they can't appropriate money. They just build what they are asked to build. 

That's not good enough.

Last week the Pennsylvania Department of Transportations (PennDOT) received two awards for a projected called the New I-95/Commodore Barry Bridge ramps. The awards were from the American Council of Engineering Companies of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Chapter of the National Society of Professional Engineers. PennDOT was very proud of these ramps and all that they mean for the city of Chester, PA, as well as the citizens of Pennsylvania.

“These new ramps are going to enhance access and travel within the City of Chester and compliment the city’s economic redevelopment and revitalization efforts along the waterfront,” PennDOT District Executive Lester C. Toaso said. “Motorists now will find it quicker and easier to go between the waterfront and the interstate since they no longer have to weave their way on city streets to travel between I-95 and 2nd Street.”

Let's first take a look at the project itself. I've circled the new ramps in red on the image below. As shown, the ramps provide an exit a half mile away from the existing off ramps. According to news reports, the new ramps are expected to serve 8,000 cars per day.

Image taken from Google EarthAs the PennDOT official indicated, it was felt that the burden of having an exit a half mile away -- or loop back on the highway if going in the other direction -- was stifling economic development of the shoreline so dramatically that spending $77 million on the ramps was warranted. This is reiterated in the PennDOT press release.

To enhance access to the Chester waterfront, PennDOT created a new interchange by building two ramps off the Commodore Barry Bridge under a $77.1 million construction project. One ramp takes I-95 traffic directly onto Route 291/2nd Street, while the other ramp allows Route 291/2nd Street drivers to reach I-95. 

Prior to the construction of these new ramps off the Commodore Barry Bridge, there was no direct access between I-95 and the Chester waterfront. 

Okay, so now there is direct access to the waterfront. My assumption -- based on this huge, redundant investment -- was that this must be some shoreline. The development there must be very impressive indeed.

Well, not exactly. While there is a stadium -- the universal sign of desperation in economic development - here's what else appears to be there: a solid waste facility, numerous scrap facilities, a paper company, what looks like a sewage treatment plant, a couple of industrial sites dealing with metals and plastics, and a place that looks like this:

Pictured shared through Google Earth.If you think I exaggerate, here is a link for you to check out the area yourself.

Of course, readers to this blog won't be surprised by the fact that there is nothing in place to warrant this sizeable investment. The fact that there is nothing there is the point. This place has "potential". Utilizing the second Mechanism of Growth is the classic next step in the Growth Ponzi Scheme. Build it and they will come, right engineering profession?

That's exactly how Pennsylvania Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (who is conveniently from Chester) sees it. According to Pileggi:

"In 36 to 60 months, we will see an explosion of economic development on Route 291."

Of course, it is an inconvenient fact that Route 291 -- which doesn't actually go along the shoreline, as intimated -- looks an awful lot like Route 13, the next off ramp to the north that was apparently too far for the scrap metal people to travel. Unfortunately, Route 13 -- despite having a glorious access already in place -- does not seem to be prospering all that much. Nobody seems to be fretting about that experiment in providing access. I guess in Pennsylvania (as with most of the country), if at first you don't succeed, ignore that and just do it again, only bigger and more expensive.

What this project feels like is simply that wish for a magic bullet solution. Read what State Representative Thaddeus Kirkland -- also of Chester and from the opposite party of Senator Pileggi -- had to say about the need for the ramp.

“We need these types of things to build economic development,” Kirkland said. “If William Penn could see us now, he’d have a nice place to park his boat, a nice stadium to go see a soccer game in, and then he could take a few of his gold coins and go down to Harrah’s.”

This is fantasy. A very expensive gimmick that is not only wasting a lot of money, but is diverting the energies, hopes and dreams of a city of 34,000 -- a city that lost 8% of its population over the last decade -- from things that could actually help them become a strong town. The median household income in Chester is $25,294, half the state average $49,520. The median house value is just over $66,000 compared to $165,000 statewide. It is insulting to even suggest that this city needs a soccer stadium, a casino and a place to park their boat. How many gold coins do the people of Chester posess among them? Heck, how many of them can even afford to drive?

These ramps represent an investment of $9,060 for a Chester family of four. For a city with a 12% reported rate of unemployment, how many real jobs could be created if $77 million were put into an economic gardening program? This is an unconscionable expenditure.

But it gets worse. While PennDOT is gloating over their two awards for these ramps, they rank #1 in the country for having bridges that are structurally deficient. That is not #1 as in the best but #1 as in the worst. THE WORST. Pennsylvania's DOT, which just spent $77 million on two new ramps half a mile from two existing ramps, has 5,906 structurally deficient bridges that together carry nearly 23 million cars per day. More than one out of every four bridges in Pennsylvania is structurally deficient.

How can any spokesman for an organization with that track record tout these new ramps as a benefit for motorists? How can any engineer, knowing the backlog of critical maintenance that exists, suggest that travels will now be "quicker and easier" thanks to this project? It is scary to think that they may actually believe what they are saying.

And while it might be gratuitous, I need to again point out for those of you waiting breathlessly for the federal government to authorize a transportation spending bill, one that will fund transit, build trails and do all kinds of "great" things (with borrowed money), just how projects like these are funded

The $77,196,759 project was financed with 80 percent federal and 20 percent state funds.

Note that only a few "radicals" are suggesting there be a change in this approach. The great Ponzi scheme rolls on, spending someone else's money on another local gimmick. Get yours while you can.

And sitting back and benefiting from it all: the engineering profession. Is that too harsh for you? Well, go check out the organization that gave PennDOT their award for these ramps, the American Council of Engineering Companies of Pennsylvania. They are so brazen they don't even try to hide behind report cards, bogus reports and other propaganda. The first line on their web site says exactly what they are "exclusively" about:

The American Council of Engineering Companies of Pennsylvania (ACEC/PA) is devoted exclusively to the promotion and enhancement of the business interests and profitability of the consulting engineering industry in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Congratulations PennDOT. An award well deserved.

 

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