Art Norwalk: The Lure of Shiny Objects in Providence and Rhode Island


Are Governor Gina Raimondo, Mayor Jorge Elorza, and the leaders of the General Assembly and Providence City Council afflicted with Shiny Object Syndrome (SOS)?

The Web site says you have SOS if “a new idea captures your imagination and attention in such a way that you get distracted from the bigger picture and go off in tangents instead of remaining focused on the goal.”

The shiny objects currently dominating city and state politics are, of course, the streetcar and the stadium. Proponents claim they would be great investments, each bringing jobs and economic development to the city and state, while opponents claim they will waste hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to no good end.

In the next few months our leaders will have to decide if they’re being blinded by shiny hype or offered real game-changing opportunities that come at reasonable costs.

All of this is playing out in the shadow of the 38 Studios debacle, which suggests to some people that we should be extra careful when committing taxpayer dollars over decades without voter approval, and to others that we should not hunker in a bunker letting opportunities pass us by because of one bad experience.

Since the true results of both projects wouldn’t be known for many years, there’s a temptation for politicians to rush to the shovels, creating construction jobs now and having literally shiny objects ready for display at re-election time.

Let’s hope they take a longer view, based on the definition of SOS and some hard-nosed, independent financial thinking. The projects have significant differences, but similar principles can guide the decisions.

What’s the big picture? Both city and state governments are financially strapped, with citizens who are looking to them for solutions to stagnant economies and poor job prospects, and they want it done without cutting services or raising taxes. Both situations are ripe for shiny objects.

Is it realistic to expect that the proposed projects will make significant contributions to meeting key goals? Will their results justify the costs?

Studies and statistics presented by proponents say both projects will help improve the city and state economies, but in both cases the arguments were created by consultants whose business goal is to help projects get funded. The city and state should both insist on and pay for qualified independent assessments before proceeding.

Are these projects the best use of resources to meet key goals?

We have been told for years that the 195 land offers the state’s best hope for bringing in new companies with high paying knowledge and manufacturing jobs. Does a stadium support that effort or represent a failure to keep our eye on the ball?

Does the current proposal ask for too much from the public in terms of cash, tax relief, and property ownership? We should be less concerned with how much profit the team owners might make (that is, after all, their business), but more concerned with whether the state and city are getting a fair deal.

By opening with a proposal that is wildly skewed to their benefit, the owners have attempted to move the goalposts out to an extreme point. They could be hoping that the state counters with something in the middle, resulting in a “compromise” deal that’s really about 75% in the owners’ favor. If, on the other hand, the state counters will a proposal equally far to the other extreme, we could end up with something fair.

But we should only do this if we truly believe the stadium is worthwhile and not a cop-out for getting something — anything — built on the 195 land.

Will a streetcar running in the midst of car and truck traffic make transportation any better? Will having permanent tracks in the streets convince developers to put up 3.6 million square feet of new construction (equivalent to ten Superman buildings) along the 1.6 mile route? Does experience in other cities support the idea that streetcars, by themselves, cause this level of economic development? At more than $62 million per mile, how many of the suggested streetcar extensions (East Side, South Side, West Side) could the city afford?

Are there better ways to spend $100 million to achieve better transportation and economic development?

Should these high cost, multi-decade projects be committed without voter approval?

Note use of the word “should”; if I had written “could” the answer would clearly be, “yes.” Through various machinations, the law allows both city and state to get around the requirement for voter approval of capital expense borrowing. But in both the stadium and streetcar proposals, the money will nonetheless come from us, the taxpayers, for decades. It will be a commitment that future City Councils and General Assemblies cannot change, a hole in their budgets every single year as they grapple with other needs.

The power to do something implies the power not to do it.

Our leaders might ask themselves if it’s likely that either of these projects would pass a referendum: in Providence on the streetcar, statewide on the stadium proposal. How long did it take you to answer that one?

If the voters can’t see the shine, should their leaders force the objects, and the bill, on them?

  • Mike678

    Companies need to sell goods at a price that covers expenses and makes a slight profit. High tax rates, high utility costs, below average human capital and middle class flight makes it unlikely that companies can make it in Little Rhody.

    Cut taxes, adjust social aid to just below neighboring states, stop with the so-called “green energy” initiatives that help make our utilities so pricey and advance school choice. It will take a little time, but things will turn around. Probability of these things happening?

    • Greg


  • Greg

    If built, these two boondoggles will be built solely with Union labor. So, again, these so-called initiatives benefit Union members at taxpayers expense who in general will be shut out of any direct economic benefit. All the more reason to defeat these two disasters in the making.

  • ShannonEntropy

    Putting these projects to a vote or not, the results will likely be the same, seeing as how Rhodent voters show a depressingly consistent tendency to vote for any bond issue placed before them

    I finally figured out WHY this is trve … it’s because most voters are older. None of the four people in my immediate family under the age of forty are even registered to vote; while everyone over age fifty votes in every election

    The mind·set of the older voter is: borrow the bucks and blow them today, and let our grandchildren pay the bonds off long after we’re gone

    That way of thinking is shockingly self-centered and selfish. But that’s human nature, I suppose. I have no doubt our kids would stick it to us if they could figure out a way to

    • Mike678

      Do you really think that most seniors are that thoughtless? Beware of over-generalizations and anecdotal “truths.” Many of the youth in my family are registered, informed, and vote.

      Look also to voter apathy. What percentage voted? Who was motivated to vote? There is a positive feedback cycle in this state–and the results aren’t positive. The State funds arts and other advocacy groups like Grow Smart RI. These groups, in turn, use the state dollars to advertise for bond issues and holds seminars and classes that actively recruit municipal personnel to “advise policymakers” how they should act. These newly educated people then give these groups more money…. This needs to stop. I don’t mind people pushing a position–I do mind it if they are using my tax dollars to advocate positions I disagree with.

      • ShannonEntropy

        Beware of over-generalizations and anecdotal “truths.” Many of the youth in my family are registered, informed, and vote.

        Sounds like YOU are the one who needs to beware of “anecdotal” data

        The youth in my family are much more like young people in general than your civic-minded family appears to be

        I would refer you to Figure 1 on page 2 of the following report to see the Census Bureau’s take on the subject =►

        • Warrington Faust

          Although I cannot find support in the link you provided, there was a lot of noise about getting out the “youth vote” a generation ago. Later analysis indicated the probable, Democratic parents reared Democratic voters with the simliar attitudes. Obviously important in “party politics”, I am not sure this this bears on voting for bond and policy issues. For instance would the grandchildren of those who supported the “War on Poverty” in the 60’s line up today for more of the same in Baltimore? However, the popularity of getting out the “youth vote” suggests that demographics have long indicated that “youth” don’t vote. Perhaps because their parents didn’t.

          • ShannonEntropy

            I am not sure this this bears on voting for bond and policy issues.

            Of course it does … cuz there is a generational war going on in this country. And WE Senior citizens are gonna win it !!

            WHY ?? Because WE vote … and ‘kids’ don’t (( relatively speaking, obviously. Happy, Mike678 ?? ))

            Politicians do their own “internal polling” and see that the majority of their voting constituents are older. This is especially trve here in The Biggest Little

            You can get the same basic data the pols do … if yer willing to pay for it. But you don’t really need to. Just look around you the next time you vote. The polling place looks like a casino — where 80% of the people are on social security

          • Mike678

            Yes. Who says older people can’t learn? (in general) :)

  • James Kennedy, @TransportPVD

    I agree with Mr. Norwalk on the stadium.

    In many ways I agree about the streetcar as well. I would prefer Bus Rapid Transit.

    Yet I’m struck by the hypocrisy of–if not Mr. Norwalk himself–certainly the Anchor-Current at large. The Sakonnet Bridge cost twice what the streetcar will. And 6/10, if replaced, will cost five times as much (in fact, 6/10 would amount to the same as the entire TIGER grant program, nationally). A modest $0.10 charge for the Sakonnet led to vandalism. I pay $2.00 each way to use transit. The Anchor-Current must answer for why it is so penny-pinching with transit budgets and so generous about roads–it’s not the market that leads them.

    • Justin Katz

      I’m not entirely sure what your complaint is. I can think of a number of reasons roadways would have a different role in one’s political philosophy than the service of providing transportation. More important, in this context, one can also assign different weights to maintenance of infrastructure that exists, and around which people have built their lives, and proposals for new projects.
      For the record, by the way, the 10-cent toll was explicitly a placeholder, set to go up by a lot.

      • James Kennedy, TransportPVD

        There’s not any reason to assign a $200 million bridge to an outer region of the state more importance than a $100 million transit project serving the core. If anything, there are a number of reasons to do the opposite–the fact that the transit project has the potential to serve many more people, build far more financial growth around it, and do much less harm to the environment in return for that growth. If you looked at the per-person subsidy rather than the per-mile subsidy (which is irrelevant), you’d understand that.

        That’s not to say that there aren’t legitimate critiques of the choice to go with a streetcar instead of BRT, but it just means that it’s fair to put everything in full context and not cherry-pick data. Human Transit blog does excellent work talking about the problems with the streetcar approach that the Obama administration has chosen, and a lot of urbanists are aware of those problems and having a pretty strong debate about the merits of one mode over the other. I am personally a BRT proponent, but I’ve made peace with the streetcar in the larger context of Providence’s situation:

        Now, I wouldn’t argue that there’s anything wrong with our having built the new Sakonnet Bridge to replace the old, but it wasn’t a free project. You should know that the cost of those projects come from somewhere, and that if users don’t pay the costs directly they spread the costs through bundling with other goods. We pay gas taxes nationally and in Rhode Island, but those don’t account for the costs of roads, and additionally, we have a number of housing policies at federal, state, and local levels that disperse people and favor roads and sprawl. So my problem is the blithe approach that the Current/Anchor seem to take in calling out the holes in the market logic of certain transit projects, but not recognizing the costs of roads. The toll was expected to go above $0.10, but unless you’re suddenly transformed into a communist when you drive, you should recognize that that’s a reflection of the costs of the project, and part of a market economy.

        I’m not a conservative, but I recognize the importance of markets as a part of the overall whole. I get frustrated at some of my fellow liberals for not always seeing how that fits into things. But it’s also tremendously frustrating to see the right in Rhode Island ignore the overall cost-benefit analysis for transit, urban density, walkability, etc. You all ought to spend some time reading Market Urbanism or Strong Towns blog to acquaint yourselves with the conservative arguments for these things.

        • Justin Katz

          At least with respect to the Sakonnet River Bridge, I think you’re the one taking a narrow view. The intended toll was way beyond what was needed for maintenance of that bridge. It was explicitly intended to help subsidize the maintenance of three other, older bridges, which in turn was intended to free up money to fund road maintenance all across the state.
          It was a clear example of targeting a small population in order to fund projects for a large population that wouldn’t have to pay.
          Hey, I don’t have any problem with user fees. I do have a problem with user fees as a way to add new revenue on top of an already excessive tax burden for an inefficient and corrupt government. If user fees can be made to be an exchange for tax reductions, then that’s something worth talking about.

          • James

            I think it would make more sense to put a modest toll on all bridges than an expensive toll on just one. I agree.

            I think you’ll find that the urbanist community, though it spans politics from very liberal to very conservative, finds RIDOT corrupt and wasteful and wants a smaller financial footprint for our transportation. The alliance between left and right on the stadium has been key and should be a part of the strategy for dealing with RIDOT.

        • ArtNorwalk

          James: 1) the idea that a 1.6 mile mid-city streetcar that duplicates bus, car, bicycle and walking routes has the potential to serve many more people than a bridge providing the only connection between two communities does not hold water. 2) There never was a choice between streetcar and BRT because the streets between RR and RIH are far too narrow to allow exclusive lanes for buses or streetcars. Visions of an extended streetcar network are also fantasy: at $60 million + per mile, where will the money come from?

          Emerging electric bus technology (no rails, no wires, no exhaust) is the way forward for PVD transit.

          • James

            We talked about this a bit online, but for the benefit of the readership here, BRT does not necessarily require huge roads. There needs to be some way for drivers to approach an area, but not necessarily on every street. For instance, Chestnut St. in the Jewelry District is quite narrow, but wide enough for a ROW for the streetcar if it goes car-free. This might sound anti-car, but what it really does is create a Pareto optimal for cars and transit users, because transit carries so many more riders than cars in a given space that it reduces traffic congestion. A transit route can do its best work when it has this kind of ROW because that means the advantages of how it carries people can be exploited fully. If it sits in traffic with the cars, then that’s not the case.

            Some streets in Providence are quite wide. Exchange St. N/S can carry a ROW and still have room for other stuff. Same with N. Main if there is ever an extension.

  • Sombremesa

    Very well said.