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The Wrong Mindset on School Repairs

Somehow, I don’t expect Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s “bold plan” increased school construction funding to emphasize a change in priorities that leads to spending reductions elsewhere.  The quote in Shiina LoSciuto and Sarah Doiron’s WPRI article is better seen as a cause for alarm:

Raimondo said she plans to unveil a proposal next week for funding the rebuilding of schools across the state.“I plan to present a bold plan to the legislature, to make a once in a generation investment in rebuilding our schools,” Raimondo said.

This is entirely the wrong mentality.  We don’t want to repair schools once a generation.  We don’t need “an investment” as much as we need reform.

Maintenance and repair should be ongoing.  The problem is that the incentive in state and local government is to spend as much money as taxpayers will tolerate on ongoing operations and then hit us with a crisis in order to ratchet up the revenue.  One photograph of a flooded classroom suddenly makes disappear the consequences for three decades of letting maintenance slide while spending on other priorities.

And then moving forward, this “once in a generation investment” will be built into our state and local tax bills, which won’t go down when all the work is done and all debt is paid off.  Instead, as the cost of the emergency subsides, the government will find ways to spend the money elsewhere and let the schools deteriorate again.  Meanwhile, whatever mental space Rhode Islanders allocate toward thinking about education will be distracted by the excuse that children can’t learn in crumbling schools and then palliated by the fancy new buildings, even as the level of education continues to be substandard.

We have to stop falling for this ploy.

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The Post Office’s Delivery Neutrality

One suspects that Wall Street Journal reporters Cara Lombardo and Paul Ziobro saw their recent article on the United States Post Office’s imbalance with Amazon as residing in the “Trump tweets versus the world” category.  On the social media platform, the president expressed frustration that the money-losing government agency is basically subsidizing Amazon’s business by keeping shipping costs artificially low.

The ins and outs of that conflict — woven through consumer interests, the destruction of local brick-and-mortar retailers, and so on — are interesting, but for my narrow purpose, here, it occurred to me that the matter offers a serviceable analogy to net neutrality:

… some critics suggest that the USPS is underpricing such services and that the e-commerce deliveries are being subsidized by the universal service obligation that the USPS must maintain under congressional edict. The universal service obligation is a collection of requirements that ensures all users receive a certain level of service at a reasonable price.

Like Internet service providers, the post office has a limited amount of bandwidth, and it wants to keep prices down to maximize the number of individuals and organizations that can use the service.  That low price, however, creates a framework on which major players can lean their business models for greater profits than would be possible if the providers were able to absorb some of them to provide their mission-critical link in the chain.

Both issues present a need for balance, and people can obviously apply different priorities; the distinction between government and private corporations also has an effect.  Both seem to me, however, to show quite readily the complex nature of balancing society’s interests and the folly of attempting to channel them through blunt government instruments.

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Jobs That Appear When the Taxpayer Money Starts to Flow

Here’s a doozy of an example of government waste:

Workers in the East Side Access tunnel, which will connect Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan with the Long Island Rail Road. The project’s costs have ballooned to nearly $3.5 billion for each new mile of track. …

The budget showed that 900 workers were being paid to dig caverns for the platforms as part of a 3.5-mile tunnel connecting the historic station to the Long Island Rail Road. But the accountant could only identify about 700 jobs that needed to be done, according to three project supervisors. Officials could not find any reason for the other 200 people to be there.

Sadly, one suspects that this is just an extreme version of a typical activity, and that’s before one points out the reality of jobs that are happily claimed on the books, but that could easily be discarded, such as the proverbial three union workers on every project whose apparent job is to watch the one who’s actually doing something.

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PawSox: Suddenly a Legislative Hot Potato?

Kathy Gregg is reporting in today’s Providence Journal that

[Senate President Dominick] Ruggerio said the Senate Finance Committee will unveil a revised version of the PawSox financing bill next week, and then vote to “hold it for further study,” so the public can see it, discuss it and debate it before the General Assembly convenes for its 2018 session on Jan. 2.

Yesterday on the WPRO airwaves, Dan Yorke, an open supporter of the state’s financial participation in a new stadium for the PawSox, noted that he had been aware since last week that this would happen. More interestingly, he reported that members of the House have been urging their colleagues in the Senate “do not send us this bill”.

Interesting. Are some in the House seeing the folly, financial or political or both, of the state getting involved in a sport when far more important matters have been budgetarily neglected or outright cut? For example – and feel free to add to this list of unwise legislative priorities – of course, excessively generous state pensions had to be cut, though bringing the fund from 49% funded to only 56% funded was in no way worthy of the fawning national media coverage showered on the governor for this “feat”. But bigger picture, should public pensions take a secondary position to a very seasonal “economic development” (please, no snickers) sports project?

And as was demonstrated by both the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity and the Republican Policy Group, headed by Minority Leader Patricia Morgan, the money to repair Rhode Island’s as roads and bridges could easily have been found in the budget. But Governor Raimondo pretended otherwise and the legislature unwisely followed her lead in passing a highly destructive and inefficient toll plan (the implementation of which is not going swimmingly). Really? Our roads and bridges are less important than the state participating in the frivolity of a sport?

What does it say about Rhode Island’s priorities if the state participates in the PawSox stadium? That needs to be the point that House members and leaders mull over as they consider the PawSox request and the Senate’s bill. Possibly, it is the basis of the quiet push-back, referenced by Yorke, that the Senate is getting from the House and that has hopefully turned the PawSox stadium into a political hot potato.

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Chris Maxwell: RIDOT’s Inadequate Environmental Assessment Intended to Accelerate Toll Bait Lawsuit

[Below are the prepared comments of Chris Maxwell, President of the Rhode Island Trucking Association, for the RIDOT toll gantry workshop Tuesday evening. The video of Chris’ actual comments, abbreviated due to time constraints, can be viewed here. For the sake of the news outlet that erroneously reported that public comment Tuesday night was mostly a re-hash of old objections and omitted all on-topic comments from their story, Ocean State Current has bolded all of Chris’ comments that pertain to the Environmental Assessment that was the subject of Tuesday’s workshop.]

Good evening. My name is Chris Maxwell and I represent the Rhode Island Trucking Association and all local trucking companies adversely affected by truck-only tolls.

Our opposition to this plan from its introduction in the spring of 2015 is well-documented. And despite the justified rancour that still exists, our industry’s willingness to contribute to infrastructure improvement remains steadfast – even beyond our existing contributions which are considerable.

In 2016, the trucking industry in Rhode Island paid roughly $70 million in federal and state roadway taxes.

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… By the Way, RIDOT’s New Tolling Study Has Major Problems, Too

At about the same time they issued a not-ready-for-primetime Environmental Assessment of the first two proposed toll gantry locations in southern Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) also issued an “investment grade tolling study” of the entire RhodeWorks toll plan – a study, we should note, which cost the taxpayers of Rhode Island a cool million dollars.

During their show, “Changing Gears”, yesterday on WPRO, Mike Collins and Chris Maxwell broadly hinted at major problems with this tolling study. Maxwell remarked that the state “would have been wise to put it through the shredder because it is very favorable” to the truckers’ anti-toll position.

Stay tuned on this – or drop by RIDOT’s hearing on Tuesday to hear about it first hand. That’s when the Rhode Island Trucking Association (represented by Maxwell) and the American Trucking Association (represented by Collins) will point out chapter and verse how RIDOT’s own toll study apparently torpedoes Governor Raimondo’s highly destructive, wasteful and unnecessary RhodeWorks toll plan.

Remember, Governor Raimondo and the General Assembly are only going to toll trucks! *snort*

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Hearing Tuesday on First Toll Gantries With Acute Case of UHIP-itis

RIDOT has identified the locations of the first two proposed toll gantry locations in southern Rhode Island. This Tuesday, they will be holding a workshop and taking public comment on their newly-released (not to say rushed out the door) Environmental Assessment of the locations. The problem is that the assessment suffers from exactly the same serious flaw as the ill-fated UHIP system: it was released before it was ready. “Continue Reading” to learn why – and for deets about attending the hearing.

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Selling Assets as a “Once and for All” Pension Fix Is a Bad Idea

Reporting on WPRI, Dan McGowan and Walt Buteau explain that Democrat Mayor of Providence Jorge Elorza is looking to sale of the city’s water supply as a means of filling the giant chasm of Providence employees’ pension fund:

Elorza, who is planning to run for re-election next year, said he’s seeking a “once and for all” solution to the city’s pension challenges.

 

As a general proposition, selling the water supply might or might not be a good idea, but this reason is horrible.  Just look to Woonsocket, which sold pension obligation bonds to fill its fund to 100% in 2003, but by 2011 was down to 57.7% funded.  The latest numbers on the Web site of the state Division of Municipal Finance put Woonsocket’s funding at 49.1%.

Unless a municipality fixes its underlying problems — such as overly generous employee packages and a more-realistic estimate for investment returns — every scheme will be a temporary fix.  In this case, Providence will have one fewer asset to help with unforeseen challenges in the future.

Even more, Elorza explicitly claims that another entity could run the system better because Providence is “so heavily regulated by the Public Utilities Commission.”  If that’s the problem, fix the PUC, and if Elorza thinks the PUC is little more than an expensive restriction, he should advocate for its abolishment. Otherwise, he’s just condemning those who drink and pay for Providence water to unnecessary expense (if the PUC is an excess) or unhealthy drinking water (if its regulations are actually needed).

By all means, if the city is having trouble running its water system, sell it off, but only if the new system is a better system of itself.  If a private company is willing to buy the water, it’s because there’s profit to be made (at least for employees), which indicates a problem with city management.  And if the money for the assets ultimately comes from the state, the whole thing will have been a one-time scam whose benefits for the city will rapidly disappear.

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Power Outages as Another Warning Sign

Rhode Islanders should take stories like Mark Reynolds’s in The Providence Journal as yet another warning sign that what can’t go on forever won’t:

As of 6:45 a.m. Tuesday, 83,227 homes and businesses were without power, according to National Grid’s website. Late Tuesday night, 102,432 had been without power.

The effort to restore power will be a “multiday effort,” a spokesman for National Grid said Monday.

The central purpose of government is to ensure baseline security and resilience, and infrastructure is near the top of that list.  When government becomes too big, insiders find it much more profitable to themselves to pursue other things first and to let their boring responsibilities suffer.

We appear to have reached the point, in Rhode Island, that government’s apparent first priority is to promise things, but not necessarily to manage to deliver them well.  Combine all of these power outages from a wind storm with the UHIP debacle and ask yourself:  Do you think the resources we allocate for government will have us properly prepared when something really terrible happens?

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Warwick School Conditions and Problematic Personnel

The local news media is all a-buzz this week with reports that the members of the Warwick teacher’s union have shut down another school with a “sick out,” this time Veterans Junior High School (affecting even younger children than those whose lives the teachers disrupted last Friday at Pilgrim High School).  This part of John Hill’s report in the Providence Journal should raise additional questions:

Warwick Teachers Union President Darlene Netcoh said if the sick calls were a job action and not due to actual illness, the move had not been sanctioned by the union.

“It’s not an organized sick-out,” she said. “There was no vote.”

She said Veterans has had health issues in the past, with parents complaining about conditions in the building.

Upon inquiry from The Current, Hill replied that he’s working to verify Netcoh’s claim about the junior high’s especial difference from other Warwick Schools.  The superintendent’s office provided The Current with the following statement:

We have received no formal complaints from parents or staff of health issues related to the condition of Veterans Jr. High School.  In response to numerous unspecified statements, the District contracted with an independent agency last year to test air quality levels in the building.  All tests came back within normal ranges.  Additionally, substantial work was done over the summer replacing the school’s heating system with a new, state of the art heating and air conditioning system.  This work has resulted in significant improvement in the air quality as well as the movement and flow of the air in the building.

The Rhode Island Department of Education’s recently released assessment of school buildings in Rhode Island actually rates Veterans as being in the fourth best condition of the district’s 21 schools, with a repair-to-replacement ratio of 40.6%.

To be sure, that rating is not desirable, falling in the report’s “poor” category, and Warwick’s schools overall are fourth worst among Rhode Island districts.  Far from excusing the teachers’ labor union action, however, this fact suggests that more of the city’s limited resources should go to building repair and maintenance than to problematic personnel.

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