That’s Not an Improvement

That’s Not an Improvement

By Charles Marohn

How much hubris does it take for someone to label everything that they do professionally as an “improvement”?

The answer is: a lot. It takes a LOT of hubris, an incredibly inflated sense of self-importance and righteousness.

Traffic engineers and other engineers who work on municipal infrastructure ubiquitously use the term “improvement” to describe what they do. This is a street improvement project. We’re improving the intersection. This project improves the clear zone. And on and on and on. Every project they work on is an improvement project.

Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble when you’re constantly improving everything you touch.

Step back and consider other professional pursuits. We don’t witness teachers describe their work as “cognitive improvement projects.” They call what they do teaching and what the student does as learning. We generally assume that education is making lives better (I think it mostly does), but teachers don’t go so far as to talk about their work as always improving everything.

Now, consider doctors. Someone putting a patient on a ventilator or performing an emergency surgery doesn’t call it a “breathing improvement” or “a bowel improvement.” Instead, they describe accurately what they are doing. It’s an intubation or an appendectomy. It might be an improvement for the patient, but it might not. Either way, it doesn’t matter, because the term “improvement” is a value statement that can only be made by the patient, not the doctor.

In other words, while the work that teachers and doctors perform undoubtedly serves the public good, they don’t inject their own value system into every description of their work. More importantly, they don’t default to thinking that everything they do is an “improvement” and, by extension, that all their undertakings should automatically be presented as making the world a better place.

Who does that? Again, what level of hubris—what lack of introspection—does it take to walk around speaking of your work in that way, especially when you serve the public and, as is obvious to anyone who has been to a public meeting, there is a lot of disagreement over whether any particular “improvement” project actually improves things?

Why not just describe what you’re proposing in neutral language?

For example, here’s a project I’ve had in my inbox for some time now: the McGilchrist Street Improvement Project in Salem, Oregon. This was first brought to my attention because the federal government—as part of the Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) funding—gave Salem $13.2 million dollars for improving McGilchrist Street, a project expected to cost $28.4 million.

Like me, you could be excused for assuming that McGilchrist is one of Salem’s most important streets, that it must carry a tremendous volume of traffic between key development areas, that it is somehow critical to the future of Salem and the region. You probably would not have guessed (I certainly didn’t) that it is a one-mile stretch of nondescript industrial road that currently serves 3,600 vehicle trips per day, mostly people going to line dance at the Honky Tonk Bar and Grill or rent a porta potty from Honey Bucket.

We’re rebuilding our infrastructure with sustainability! And with equity! At $28.4 million, with $13.2 of that from a supposedly competitive federal grant, it makes you wonder what RAISE projects didn’t make the cut.

Think I’m exaggerating? Here’s McGilchrist on Google Maps; check it out for yourself. And here’s the obligatory benefit-cost propaganda document complete with traffic projections (see page 25).

Let’s be clear: This is a terrible project. Almost $8,000 per current trip. That’s absurd. And just looking at the local part of this investment, how much does the Salem tax base need to increase from this project to justify the city spending $15.2 million? A heck of a lot more than the $19.4 million their ridiculous benefit-cost analysis optimistically estimates.

If all of that optimistic increase happens immediately (it won’t), and they tax 2% of that property value each year (they tax less than that), Salem will bring in $388,000 per year in additional taxes from new development due to the project. Forget the fact that their day-to-day maintenance costs increase after they expand the street, and forget that they have a bigger and more expensive street now that they someday have to reconstruct—forget those small details. At $388,000 per year, it will take them 39 years to recoup the money they are putting into this project. That’s ignoring any time value of money or interest, discounting, or opportunity cost.

In other words, in the most optimistic development scenario, the “improved” McGilchrist Street is going to fall apart and will have to be reconstructed before the city of Salem recoups their part of the expenditure.

So, is that an improvement? To me, it’s stupidity; a mindless waste of public resources in pursuit of what, I don’t know. It is projects like this that are driving cities into insolvency, robbing them of capacity and distracting them from pursuing public investments that will generate greater prosperity. This project hurts Salem. Why is this called an improvement? And why is the federal government using sustainability and equity funds on a project like this?

If the project engineers are going to be honest to themselves and the public, they would refrain from projecting their own values when they give professional advice and input on projects like this. They would call it what it is: not an “improvement project,” but a “street-widening project.”

When they describe it, they wouldn’t say that it is improving commutes, improving drainage, or improving pedestrian safety. I don’t think it accomplishes any of those things, at least not long term, and that’s not even pondering the lack of any real financial analysis and impact evaluation. Either way, they can’t assert any of those things because they are value statements, and we should not accept an engineer’s values with our engineers’ advice.

Call it the McGilchrist Street-Widening, Drainage Reconstruction, Sidewalk, Bike Lane, and Traffic Signal Construction Project.

Just don’t call it an improvement project, because that’s not an improvement.

If you want to understand how projects like the McGilchrist Street-Widening Project use fraudulent benefit-cost analyses to obtain federal funding—and why the federal government requires them to do it this way—read the three-part series we did on Shreveport’s I-49 Connector project, insights I expanded on in my book, Confessions of a Recovering Engineer.

Improvements Lingo Bingo

What so-called “improvement” projects do you know of that aren’t actually improving their communities? Share your examples with us and help fill out our Improvements Lingo Bingo sheet—which contains some of the common terms that are used (and misused) in many of these projects.

Download your own copy of the Improvements Lingo Bingo sheet here (or get the printer-friendly version here).


This post was previously published on STRONGTOWNS.ORG and is republished under a Creative Commons license.



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