Posts tagged ‘NIMBY’

Examples of Why Government Infrastructure Projects Are So Hard To Get Done

As most of you know, my company operates public recreation facilities for a variety of public agencies under concession contracts.  These contracts are mostly similar to each other in their structure, but one key difference among them is the contract length -- we have both short-term contracts of say 5 years and long-term contracts up to 30 years.  When we have longer-term contracts, we are expected to do all the maintenance, even capital maintenance such as repaving roads and replacing roofs (more on that approach here).  The US Forest Service tends to prefer much shorter contracts where they retain responsibility for capital maintenance -- this tends to work out as we pay a higher concession fee on these (since we have fewer expenses) and the Forest Service has a process to use the concession fee to perform capital maintenance.  In fact, generally the FS asks us to do the maintenance because it is way easier for us to get it started (avoids the government contracting processes) and then we get credit for our costs against the fees we owe.

Anyway, I have a fair amount of experience with performing small to medium-sized infrastructure projects on public lands.  Here are a few examples, starting from the sublime and proceeding to the ridiculous, of projects we have not been able to proceed with and why.  In all these examples, my company was going to fund the project so availability of funds was not an issue.

  • In TN, we had already begun an expansion to add more campsites to an existing campground, a project already approved by our government landlord.  A disgruntled ex-employee, on his way out, claimed we had disturbed a rock pile and he thought the rock pile was some sort of Native American artifact.  Despite the fact there was no evidence for this, and that the construction was no where near the rock pile, construction was halted and my contractor had to go home while an investigation was begun.  As we speak, scores of acres surrounding the campground have been put off-limits to development until the rock pile is thoroughly studied, but of course no funding currently exists to study the rock pile so it is not clear how long this will take.  I am proceeding internally on the assumption that we will never be given permission and am cutting losses on materials bought for the project.
  • In AZ, we operated a snow play area in what was essentially a gravel pit.  The slopes we used were what was left from years of mining gravel, and essentially the whole area had been disturbed.  We wanted to add a real bathroom to replace scores of portable toilets and to bring power to the area rather than use generators.  All the work would be performed on already disturbed land in the gravel pit.  We were told we could not proceed without a NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) study to assess environmental impacts of the work, which could easily take years or longer if its results got tied up in the courts, as they often do.  Since the government had no money or manpower to do the NEPA study, it was pointless to even try to proceed.  This year, without the ability to construct necessary facilities for visitors, we exited the concession contract and the Forest Service has not be successful yet in finding anyone else to reopen it.
  • In CA, just this week, I was discussing two maintenance projects with the government in a series of campgrounds we run near the Owens Valley.  In one, we wanted to dig up a water line that runs under a dirt road to repair a leak.  In the second, we desperately needed to replace some leaky roofs on bathrooms.  Both projects are now delayed.  In the case of the water line, digging up the road was going to require an archaeological study - yes, any digging basically requires such a study, and there is no exception for utterly absurd situations like this.  We eventually decided to open the campground without water this year, to the detriment of campers.  In the other case, the replacement of roofs on some old 1950's campground pit toilet buildings (think bathrooms at a highway rest area but not as nice) have to first be evaluated to make sure they are not historic buildings that should be protected.  Since this is a safety issue, I used up my favors on this one to try to get it to proceed.  In my experience, once a building in a park or campground has been labelled historic, that is pretty much its death sentence.  It becomes impossible to do any work on them and they simply fall apart.  For example, years ago there were some really neat old travel cabins in Slide Rock State Park in AZ.  I tried to get permission to fix them up and reopen them, but was told they were historic and they had to wait for special permissions and procedures and materials.  Today, the cabins are basically kindling, having fallen apart completely.

Recognize that these are projects entirely without NIMBY, funding, permitting, licensing, or procurement issues.  But they still face barriers from government rules.

Wherein I Almost Agree With Thomas Friedman on a Climate Issue

Thomas Friedman outlines what he would do first to attack climate change

Well, the first thing we would do is actually slash income taxes and corporate taxes and replace them with a carbon tax so we actually encourage people to stop doing what we don't want, which is emitting carbon, and start doing what we do want, which is hiring more workers and getting corporations to invest more in America.

Friedman is a bit disingenuous here, as he proposes this in a way that implies that deniers (and probably evil Republicans and libertarians) oppose this common sense approach.  Some may, but I would observe that no one on the alarmist side or the Left side of the aisle is actually proposing a carbon tax that 1:1 reduces other taxes.  The only person I know who has proposed this is Republican Jeff Flake, who proposed a carbon tax that would 1:1 reduce payroll taxes.

As I said back then, I am not a big fan of taxes and think that the alarm for global warming is overblown, but I could easily get behind such a plan.  Payroll taxes are consumption taxes on labor.  I can't think of anything much more detrimental to employment and economic health.  So Flake's proposed shift from a consumption tax on labor to a consumption tax on carbon-based energy sources is something I could get behind.  I probably would do the same for Friedman's idea of shifting taxes from income to carbon.  But again, no one is proposing that for real in Congress.  The only plan that came close to a vote was a cap and trade system where the incremental payments would go into essentially a crony slush fund, not reduce other taxes.

Of course, since this is Friedman, he can't get away without saying the government should invest more in infrastructure

 the federal government would borrow money at almost 0 percent and invest it in infrastructure to make our cities not only more resilient, but more efficient.

In TARP and the stimulus and various other clean energy bills, the government borrowed almost a trillion dollars at 0% interest.  How much good infrastructure got done?  About zero.  Most of it just went to feed government bureaucrats and planning studies or ended up as crony payments to well-protected entities (Solyndra, anyone?).  The issues with government infrastructure investments, which Friedman has never addressed despite zillions of articles on infrastructure, are not the borrowing rate but

  • The incentive and information problems the government has in making investments of any sort.
  • The vast environmental, licensing, and NIMBY factors that make it virtually impossible to do infrastructure projects any more, at least in any reasonable time frame.

Try To Spot Who Has Been Left Out

Here is Kevin Drum, where he quotes from an Op/Ed about a new Southern California "Regional Transportation Plan/Sustainable Communities Strategy"

The plan includes expansion of housing near public transit by 60%....and projections of more than 4 million new jobs — with public transit within half a mile of most of them. Amanda Eaken of the Natural Resources Defense Council praised it as "the strongest transportation plan" in the history of "car-loving Southern California."

.... SCAG's new plan is born of the realization that as a region, we have to grow up, not out. That doesn't mean Hong Kong skyscrapers in Whittier and Redlands. It does mean more apartments near light-rail stations and more vibrant mixed-use areas like the ones in downtown Pasadena, Ventura and Brea. It doesn't mean wresting the car keys from suburban commuters. It does mean making jobs and housing accessible via foot, bike, bus and rail.

Here is his comment on this:

In theory, a plan like this should have almost unanimous support. Developers like it because they can put up denser buildings. Environmentalists like it because it's more sustainable. Urbanists like it because it creates more walkable communities. City governments like it because it creates a stronger tax base.

There's really only one constituency that doesn't like it much: every single person who already lives in these communities and hates the idea of dense, high-rise construction near their homes. So there's going to be fireworks. It'll be interesting to see how the NIMBY bloc gets bought off.

Can you spot which group of people whose  preferences have been left out?   He considers the preferences of planners, developers, environmentalists, urbanists, and current community residents.  That's everyone, right?

Yeah, except for the freaking people who are moving in and actually shopping for a home.  Apparently if you are looking for a place to live in California, everyone except for you has a say in what living choices you will find.  Want a suburban home on an acre of land -- you are out of luck (unless you get an existing one that is grandfathered in, but those are really, really expensive because they are what everyone really wants but no one in power in California will allow to be built).  Your chosen lifestyle has not been approved by your betters.

 

Are Private Entities Solely To Blame For Making Money Off Structural Problems Created by the Government?

Paul Krugman had this sideswipe comment the other day:

This isn't the only case where news organizations consistently report as truth something that didn't happen, while failing to report what did. Another one that comes to mind is the California electricity crisis of 2001-2002. As some readers may recall, that crisis was caused by market manipulation -- and that's not a hypothesis, Enron traders were caught on tape telling plants to shut down to create artificial shortages. Yet "news analyses" published after the whole thing was revealed would often tell readers that excessive environmental regulation and Nimbyism caused the crisis, with nary a mention of the deliberate creation of shortages.

And as you'll notice, in both cases the imaginary history just happened to be one more comfortable to status quo interests.

I find it hilarious that Krugman is talking about imaginary history, since he plays the same game so often.  In fact, the disconnect between many of Krugman's current political writings and his historical economic work are often jaw-dropping.  Even the differences in Krugman's opinion on the same topic when a Republican vs. a Democrat is in the White House can be amazing.

But I wanted to address the California utility issue.  Certainly Krugman is right, as far as he goes, in that Enron made a lot of money in the California electricity crisis creating some short-term artificial shortages.  But what he leaves out of his brief comment were the structural rules the government had put in place that made Enron's actions possible.  Enron's profits in the California electricity crisis could never have been made in a free market.

I am not an expert on the whole regulatory environment in which these events occurred, but there were three key regulatory facts that need to be understood:

1.  California, due to the NIMBY and environmental concerns Krugman mentions in passing, want lots of electricity but do not want the electricity production near them.  So they have exported the production to other states, and, more importantly, California utilities did not control the production of the electricity they needed.  Thus a lot of California power, and all of its marginal demand, is satisfied by local utilities buying out of state power.  As we will see next, Krugman is really putting up a straw man here, as this is simply background, the least important of the three government factors that drove the problem.

2.  California deregulated wholesale utility prices, but not retail prices.  The point of price deregulation is that suppliers and consumers can make better decisions because the information they get via prices is not distorted by government mandates.   But price deregulation only makes sense if the ultimate consumers have prices that float with the market.  But California consumers still had fixed prices.  There were no changes to pricing signals to consumers that might cause them to conserve more when electricity was particularly short.

So, only wholesale customers saw their prices paid increase when electricity supplies ran short.  This mainly applied to large California utilities that bought power they needed from out of state.   Theoretically, when prices spiked, they could cut back their demand.  This is more awkward for them than consumers, but could be done either with pre-determined shut down priorities or rolling brown-outs.  At some point, one would assume the cost of power would be higher than the cost of service disruptions, but...

3.  California utilities were effectively required by regulation to try to serve all demand.  Right or wrong, they felt they were in a position that if power were available, they had to buy it no matter what the cost.

So step in Enron.  Seeing this mess, they found they could corner the market at a few peak demand times and sell Calfornia power for a gazillion dollars a Kw.   I would not personally have been proud to make money that way, but Enron jumped right in.

I have no problem giving Enron grief for the way they make money, but one has to ask themselves, why the hell were California utilities buying power no matter what the price, and why was it that when electricity was so dear, it was illegal to communicate this to end users via prices (as we do with any other product or commodity).  The story here is a lot more complicated than Enron.

Update: Finem Respice took a more sophisticated look at this same issue a while back in a broader post about trying to close an open system.

On the retail side, just as California was patting itself on the back for "deregulating" in 1996 (via a bill that Pete Wilson created with complexities and exceptions for e.g., San Diego that make the special interest game in Washington look tame by comparison), it froze, just after reducing, retail electricity rates for five years. Add to this the fact that California had long depended on supplies from, e.g., the Northwest, which, for years, enjoyed a hydroelectric power generation surplus. As the surplus vanished with droughts and increased demand in the Pacific Northwest, so did the supply buffer California was so used to, and that it leaned on most heavily over the years to avoid building new generating capacity (new capacity being the bane of the progressively green environmental utopian-paradise that was (is) California energy politics). All this conspired to spike rates. Who is surprised?

It is somewhat unfortunate that Enron's shrewd manipulation of California's badly flawed and outright schizophrenic market scheme was so flagrant, and that unrelated accounting scandals at the company permitted the story to become one of deregulation evils and free market greed rather than the core issue: the political spinelessness exhibited by California officials and their ongoing attempt to insulate voters from anything resembling market prices for electricity

Stimulus Fail

Not that it is really necessary to make this point (as many of us were making it even before the Stimulus bill was passed) but the man tasked with coordinating Vermont's various stimulus programs reports that the stimulus pretty much failed. I thought this was a particularly interesting bit:

Another part of the job was to help Vermont entities win a large share of the "competitive" stimulus money available nationally at the discretion of federal agencies. Our electric utilities jointly applied for money to build a statewide Smart Grid. Our telcos put together applications for broadband money. Vermont received the most money per capita of any state for both broadband and energy. The Green Mountain State will probably benefit from these programs"”yet almost none of this money has been spent, thanks to the many federal approvals required.

The broadband and energy programs, in other words, are hardly examples of successful counter-cyclical spending: The only money spent on them during the recession was for grant-writing. More troubling, private investment in these areas, which might have occurred even during the recession, dried up as companies waited to see if they could build with taxpayer money. Entrepreneurial effort turned from innovation to grant-grubbing.

Wow, someone should coin a name for that.

I find it simply amazing that so many experienced political actors could have been fooled by this:

The acceleration of government projects that had already run the approvals gauntlet"”primarily the paving of roads"”worked. But the building of new infrastructure failed. Due to the time required to apply for grants and receive permits, none of it was done during the recession, and only a little will be done in the next few years.Nothing is "shovel ready" in the U.S. We've created a wall of regulatory obstacles"”environmental, historical sites, etc."”that blocks doing any major project on a predictable or reasonable schedule. Not even all the king's men with all the people's money can build tunnels, railroads, wind turbines, nuclear plants or anything else significant without years or even decades of delay. If permitting were speedy, we wouldn't need government money to have a construction boom.

That's easy to recognize after the fact, but plenty of folks with zero political experience, like me, were saying this before the bill was even passed:

A year from now, any truly new incremental project in the stimulus bill will still be sitting on some planners desk with unfinished environmental impact assessments, the subject of arguments between multiple government agencies, tied up in court with environmental or NIMBY challenges, snarled in zoning fights, subject to conflicts between state, county, and city governments, or all of the above.  Most of the money will have been spent by planners, bureaucrats, and lawyers, with little to show for in actual facilities.

Obama: Only 2 Years Behind Random Bloggers

Me, in January 2009:

But there is an even better reason why the stimulus bill will never work:   it is simply impossible to break ground on any new government construction project in less than a year.A year from now, any truly new incremental project in the stimulus bill will still be sitting on some planners desk with unfinished environmental impact assessments, the subject of arguments between multiple government agencies, tied up in court with environmental or NIMBY challenges, snarled in zoning fights, subject to conflicts between state, county, and city governments, or all of the above.  Most of the money will have been spent by planners, bureaucrats, and lawyers, with little to show for in actual facilities.

Obama, in October 2010

In the magazine article, Mr. Obama reflects on his presidency, admitting that he let himself look too much like "the same old tax-and-spend Democrat," realized too late that "there's no such thing as shovel-ready projects"

How smart can the guy be if it takes him two years to figure out what random schmoes like me thought was obvious?