Sunday, March 14, 2010

An idea that should be flushed down the toilet.

The City of Portland is looking to expand its bicycle infrastructure.  The DHT thinks this is a good thing--bicycle commuting is great for the environment, good for folks' health, and the infrastructure is cheap.  The city already has a high bicycle mode share for commutes, despite not having great biking weather, and a great way to reduce vehicle congestion (if that's your primary concern) is to have people off the road.

That said, taking $20 million in sewer money, to help pay for it, is kinda a dumb idea.

Would it be acceptable for PGE to ask for (and obtain) a rate increase to pay for a new high-capacity transmission line, or a new powerplant--and then pocket the savings should the work come in under budget?  Not under the current regulatory regime.  Were the project OVER budget, after all, and PGE responsible for the overrun--ratepayers would be asked to make up the difference.  Likewise, were the Big Pipe to have cost overruns rather than savings, the City Council would be hitting up Portlanders for a rate increase--not transferring money from some other public function to cover the shortfall.

And of course,, such shenanigans happened when PGE was owned by Enron--a corporation which was the Gordon Ramsey of cooking the books.  Even though Enron is now gone, many remain suspicious of PGE's good faith towards ratepayers... inclucing, it seems, the City of Portland--who has numerous times suggested that it might just want to condemn the utility.  (Given that much of PGE's customers are outside of Portland, this always struck me as a dumb idea).  I don't have a terribly strong opinion either way on public vs private utilities (either is fine by me), but in either case, the utility ought to be regulated largely for the benefit of its customers, with the owning entity entitled to some fixed piece of the action.  Utilities operated by PUDs or municipal governments ought not to be engaging in practices that would be considered outrageous if done by a private-sector utility.

Now obviously, bike infrastructure is a legitimate public purpose, so the comparison between a private utility skimming off a profit windfall and the City's funding plan, isn't an exact one--but given the high rates paid by ratepayers, and lots of maintenance issues remaining with the pipes under the streets--this transfer of funds is unwise--politically, at least.  It's a shortcut.  It causes people to lose faith in government.

Where should the money come from, instead?  The roads budget comes to mind...


Chris Smith at with an op-ed arguing that the idea isn't so bad--essentially, what is being proposed is a runoff mitigation project which happens to have bike lanes as a design feature.  I've no objection to that, provided that the benefit to sewerage operations is actually shown rather than merely alleged.  (Which it may have been).  And even then--I'd prefer a slightly different accounting be used--I'd use sewer money to do the actual drainage projects (possibly expanding the scope of the project somewhat), and use transportation dollars to fund the differential cost of the bike facilities on the top of them.

While "sewer ratepayers fund bikeways" may actually be good policy, it still isn't very good politics.  OTOH, a good case can be made that good policy (and not good politics) is exactly what our elected officials should be focused on.

1 comment:

Keep it clean, please