What Do Anti-Density NIMBYs and Road-Wideners Have in Common?

Matt Yglesias made an excellent point about NIMBYs over at Slate yesterday. Writing about opposition to multifamily residential construction in the tony neighborhood near Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis, Yglesias wondered how much value residents really place on keeping the area a “single-family residential community.”

The Alaskan Way Viaduct will cost 20 times more than drivers themselves will pay. So everyone else will pay instead.Image: ##http://www.queenanneview.com/2011/10/10/speak-your-mind-about-nine-day-viaduct-closure-2/##WSDOT##

Just because there’s value in something doesn’t mean people are willing to pay for it. Yglesias likens it to his third-generation iPad. “There would undeniably be a value in upgrading it to a fourth-generation iPad,” he says, but “it’s not worth what it would cost.”

So how much do the residents of Lake Calhoun value keeping their neighborhood single-family? Enough to let the entire rest of the city pay for it. But enough to pay for it themselves? Not a chance. Yglesias lays it out:

One thing [the] neighborhood group could do is look at the land they don’t want to see developed and buy it, thus leaving them free to do what they want with it. But they don’t want to do that, presumably because even though there’s “a value” in getting their way it’s less than the value of using the land for higher-density construction. What they want to do instead is get the city government to block the high-density construction, because that way the cost is spread across the entire population of Minneapolis in the form of foregone tax revenue.

The Minneapolis housing example reminds me of debates around the value of congestion-free roads. When roads are congested, many commuters jump to the “let’s build a wider road” approach, meaning all the taxpayers should pick up the tab to make their morning drive to work faster. But would these same commuters pay directly to speed their commute?

Clark Williams-Derry of Seattle’s Sightline Institute once told me that the highway lobby often places more value on the time people waste in traffic than the drivers themselves do:

If you actually make people pay out of pocket to get a faster trip, people aren’t willing to spend that much. We have two bridges across Lake Washington. One has to be replaced. They put a toll on it to help pay for the project, and immediately traffic plummeted. People are driving around to get to other side, driving on the other road, sitting through congestion, timing their trips differently in order to avoid tolls. People really, if they have to pay out of pocket for a quicker trip, they don’t place much value on it.

So we’re expecting taxpayers to foot the bill for things the drivers themselves will not pay for.

An even more stunning example of this comes from another Seattle road project, the Alaskan Way Viaduct, projected to cost about $4 billion. “The total amount they think they can raise from toll-payers for this project is $200 million,” Williams-Derry said. “So we’re expecting taxpayers to pay 20 times as much as drivers themselves are going to pay.”

It’s what Yglesias calls the “push the costs onto other people” plan. The few who benefit from bad urban policy want the cost to be borne by the many who suffer from it.

18 thoughts on What Do Anti-Density NIMBYs and Road-Wideners Have in Common?

  1. Ah, just like my co-worker who just moved out to exurbia in an outer county then complains that a major bridge along his commute route being replaced by inner county taxpayers isnt going to have additional lanes due to cost and neighborhood impact. A classic ever repeating story of sacrificing inner neighborhoods livability, safety and economic viability for the convenience of auto commuters choosing to live far away to have a fast free flowing commute. Nevermind the city and its residents always foot the bill and suburban residents run away into the hinterlands and refuse to contribute when its time for everyone to pay for a region’s shared commitments, be it transportation, social services, affordable housing, policing, etc.

  2. Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement project is a catastrophe in the making. It is the WRONG type tunnel for the unstable soils through which it passes beneath vulnerable historic and modern downtown buildings. Downtown Seattle sits directly atop the center of a major earthquake fault line 50 miles in length running east/west. Actual building collapse in predicted future earthquakes cannot be ruled out. Hundreds, even thousands could die. Meanwhile, the city’s traffic redirection plans are likewise murderous as statistical potential for all traffic/pedestrian/bicyclist accidents increases significantly. Between 15,000-20,000 cars and trucks will be daily redirected from a flat, straight, suitably commercial corridor onto steep Mercer Place hill through high-density residential Queen Anne on Mercer Street known as “The Mercer Mess” since the 1950’s for notorious traffic congestion. That much more traffic will ‘spillover’ onto Denney Way, an adjacent corridor likewise already overwhelmed with traffic. Finally, the boulevard design for Alaskan Way is  npredicts a tripling

  3. Continued from below:
    Alaskan Way traffic will triple but the 13 stoplight design forces cross-traffic back into thru-traffic where pedestrian crossings will hamper and frustrate motorists to create the same maniacal traffic patterns elsewhere in downtown Seattle.

    Wsdot rigged cut-cover tunnel studies up til 2007 because the agency only intended to build another monstrous viaduct. After voters rejected that plan in 2007, Wsdot studied two additional cut-cover tunnel designs but forwarded into the FEIS documents the most viable cut-cover option that they censored from the public during the vote. Wsdot also rigged studies for surface-transit options after 2007 by exaggerating the number of stoplights required, studying 27-30 stoplights instead of 9 -13 stoplights. Seattle City DOT director Grace Crunican, 2001-2009, was fired from her previous position as Oregon state DOT director for violations of ADA mandate and state code on the Ross Island Bridge surface, sidewalk & ballustrade rebuild project which she ovversaw.

  4. Again continued from below:
    Crunican was similarly fired from Seattle in 2009 when the current mayor Mike Mcginn won on the basis of opposing the deep bore tunnel. All he had to go on was gut instinct, but if the tunnel isn’t stopped, there is no way to prevent this catastrophe as the unstable soils will only become more unstable over time. The cut/cover tunnel in the FEIS aligns near perfectly at the south portal shown and makes the strongest possible seawall, but Seattle psuedo-environmentalists are as easily misled as everyone else there regarding this monstrously criminal project.

  5. Part of the confusion underlying these 2 articles is the idea that any kind of “value” can or should be equated to the “value” assigned in the marketplace.  And that is a disastrous assumption.

  6. And this same debate’s underway in Charlotte re: I-77 being widened for commuters from northern Mecklenburg County (Huntersville, Davidson, Cornelius) and Iredell County (Mooresville).  HOT lanes are planned but they’ll likely require a taxpayer subsidy for capital costs between $25-100 million, with total project est. cost $513 million.


    There’s even a group WidenI77.com, advocating for general-purpose lanes.  Conversely, $513 could fund an in-town 10-mile streetcar line proposed in Charlotte, or a $452 million 25-mile commuter rail line paralleling I-77, yet the thinking here seems to be: 40-mile interstate widening: GOOD. 10-mile streetcar line in downtown/redeveloping in-town neighborhoods or 25-mile commuter rail line guiding suburban growth: BAD.  

  7. I wonder how much we can learn from Seattle:
    “We have a bridge called Tappan Zee that is functionally obsolete.  Some people think it needs to be replaced.  If they put a toll on it to help pay for the project, traffic would immediately plummet.  Then the bridge would be at or below design capacity, and would not need to be replaced”

    Oh to dream…

  8. People are willing to pay a lot in time (and sometimes even indirectly in money) in order to get “free” stuff. For example, and I must confess I’m guilty of this, many years ago, when I lived in a less urban place and had a car, I once drove to Ben & Jerry’s free ice cream day. I don’t think the cost of the gas was more than the sale price of the ice cream, but it was still non-negligible. Add the driving time (it was almost 30 min each way!), and the time waiting in line waiting for the free ice cream, and it is downright crazy. My only rationalization is that I did it for fun and not as an economic decision. 🙂

  9. Add to your list the Columbia River Crossing, a sprawl-inducing highway project that will cost Oregon and Washington taxpayers up to 10 billion dollars according to economist Joe Cortright. Amazingly, future projections indicate that Vancouver, WA morning commuters will save only 60 seconds on their commute time into downtown Portland.

  10. @c474998aa2d5b8ba99105c1b29b36a4f:disqus  wrote “A classic ever repeating story of sacrificing inner neighborhoods livability, safety and economic viability for the convenience of auto commuters choosing to live far away to have a fast free flowing commute. “Traffic engineers have a nasty habit of optimizing roads for people driving through neighborhoods at the expense of those people living in the neighborhoods.

  11. Same story in Miami and Tampa. Hell, ever major city in Florida is like that. I thank God Im getting my masters in applied politics. Maybe I can change this nation’s car culture attitude for the better.

  12. Current Mayor of Seattle, Mike Mcginn, won on his basis of opposition to the DBT (deep bore tunnel) proposed at O-limp-ia. All Mike had to go on was gut instinct, but if the GIANT BORE tunnel isn’t stopped, there’s No Way to prevent a catastrophe as unstable waterfront soils only become more unstable over time. THE cut/cover tunnel (CCT) in the FEIS aligns near perfectly at the south portal shown and makes the strongest possible seawall, (CCTS), but Seattle psuedo-environmentalists have been easily misled as has everyone other soul there in regard to this monstrous criminal project. MercerWest, don’t forget, makes traffic WORSE almost as if by design.

  13. I’m a southern resident and frequent northern visitor with 20 years of before-committee urbanistm, new & old professional. Seattle is being misled by Olympia Highway Boys. The DBT proposed is an error of monumental proportions. Tanya, this one fight to actually Must-win. Countin on U.

  14. Don….. Interstate I-5 Columbia River Crossing Committee Chair-Agency  is Wash DOT.

    Why are you not surprised? Answer: Try searching “Galloping Gerty” for the answer.

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