Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Not Every Expenditure Is an Investment, Even If It Involves Beer

Long-time readers, at least those with good long-term memories, will recall when I grumbled about the American Society of Civil Engineers and their incessant carping about the need to “invest” in infrastructure.

The summary is that ASCE issues frequent studies proclaiming the need for government “investment” in new infrastructure or infrastructure maintenance.  Until recently, some of the studies claimed benefits that were less than the cost of the infrastructure work, which immediately disproved the argument that any money spent would be an investment.

More recently, perhaps because of the barbs sent their way by StrongTowns and others, the benefits claimed in the ASCE studies have outweighed the costs, but not by much.  And the benefits still contain fuzzy benefits such as the value of reduced commuting time.  I’m fully in favor of parents spending more time with their children.  But if someone chooses to live thirty miles from their job, I don’t want my tax dollars spent based on a capriciously assumed value of them getting home five minutes quicker.

Rather than calls for reasonable public policy, the ASCE studies seem more of a rationalization for full employment of civil engineers.

(Disclaimer: I’ve belonged to ASCE since I joined as a student over forty years ago.  But at this point, I continue the membership only for the ancillary benefits and to flip through the magazine, preferring the more rigorous infrastructure philosophies of StrongTowns, the Congress for the New Urbanism, and Smart Growth America, among others.)

It’s unfortunate when a national organization uses misleading words such as “investment” when setting forth positions on matters of public policy.  But it’s worse when the terminology begins to permeate local dialogue.

Thus, I was disheartened when the local Petaluma newspaper recently polled its readers “Should the City of Petaluma invest in a crosswalk to allow safe passage between shops and breweries along North McDowell Boulevard?”

(For those not familiar with Petaluma, the phenomenally successful Lagunitas Brewery has put down deep roots along the east side of McDowell Boulevard in an industrialized section of Petaluma.  The roots include an always busy pub offering Lagunitas beer, good food, and fine entertainment.  Following Lagunitas’ lead, several other, smaller breweries and tasting rooms have started on the opposing side of McDowell, which is a busy arterial.)

To put a cost to the suggestion, it’s well established that a painted crosswalk by itself wouldn’t be an adequate solution.  The painted lines give a false sense of security to pedestrians while providing an insufficient alert to drivers, so often result in more car/pedestrian accidents than an unmarked crossing.  And if that’s true for sober pedestrians, it’s even more true pedestrians who’ve had a beer or two.

So instead of a simple crosswalk, an overhead signal would be required.  Given the cross street near the breweries, the best solution would likely be fully signalized intersection.  (From published accounts on the brewery question, City public works staff quickly reached the same conclusion.)  The cost of fully signalizing the intersection hasn’t been estimated, but $250,000 is a reasonable guess.

So, the poll posed by the newspaper becomes whether the City can recoup $250,000 from facilitating commerce in the burgeoning brewery district.  Unfortunately, the answer must be “No”.  The only City revenues would be sales tax and perhaps a few transient occupancy taxes from folks who don’t choose to drive home after an evening of enjoying craft beers.  Those revenues don’t come close to covering a $250,000 capital cost.

(It’s true that the breweries might capture $250,000 in additional net revenue, but spending public funds to generate private profits isn’t reasonable public policy.)

However, every municipal expenditure needn’t be an investment.  Neither paving the streets in front of our homes nor mowing our neighborhood parks has a financial return.  Instead, we choose to tax ourselves so the city can fulfill tasks that we find improve our quality of life. 

And that finally makes the poll question what it should have been all along.  “Would the City of Petaluma spending $250,000 for a signalized crosswalk to allow safe passage between shops and breweries along North McDowell Boulevard be an appropriate quality of life expenditure?”

As pleased as I am to have framed the question correctly, my answer unfortunately remains “No”.   Spending municipal money to remedy the flaws inherent in a brewery district taking root in an industrial area bisected by a busy arterial is throwing good money after bad.  The funds would be only a bandage on the gaping wound that is our long-time affair with drivable suburbia.

However, in the unlikely event that the City had a spare $250,000 sitting around, I might very well support spending the funds to help create a brewery district in a more walkable part of the community.  Beer can be a good community amenity, if it’s located in a place where folks can take transit or walk home after an evening of conviviality.

Perhaps the redeveloped fairgrounds could be an eventual site for a brewery district.  Or perhaps the underutilized industrial buildings near E. Washington and Copeland could provide a suitable home within a short walk of the SMART station.

(Disclaimer: I’m currently chatting with a local developer about a site concept that could include an extensive tasting room for local beers.  The discussions are preliminary.)

Petaluma should be proud of the brewery culture that is taking hold in the community.  It can become an important part of the town if we make good decisions about how to support it.  And that doesn’t include putting an expensive crosswalk on a busy arterial.

Also, we need to quit describing every possible infrastructure expense as an “investment”.  The poor word choice only complicates an area of public policy in which we already struggle to make good decisions.

My next post will take a different angle on the subject I noted in passing above, using taxes to accommodate a shared vision of the public good, even if not an “investment”.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

(Note: The photo above of a Dublin bar is by Petaluman David Powers.)

No comments:

Post a Comment