Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Drowning in a Sea of Red Tape

Today I attended a meeting of the Washtenaw Area Transportation Study (WATS). I'd been wondering why more progress wasn't being made toward green transportation options. Why is "business as usual" so prevalent when the signs of global warming and peak oil are so clear?

I discovered what you may already know. It's not so much lack of will or intelligence. There are lots of people who are smart and want to do the best for our communities. But they're drowning in a sea of red tape. The weight of bureaucracy has effectively crushed them.

Let me explain. WATS is a mid-level transportation authority - not really a "study". I learned that every transportation project, from paving a gravel road in the countryside to building a rapid transit system, is required to go through a long chain of approvals. The local jurisdiction (in my area, Ypsilanti Township) puts in a request to the Washtenaw County Road Commission. That request is sifted along with requests from all the other townships and prioritized. Does it fit in to the long-range plan? Is there a potential source of money for it? There are about ten possible sources of money, all of which require an application and approval, all of which are under funded by at least 50% compared with the requests submitted.

Requests from all township are then prioritized and taken to the WATS Technical Committee to get a ballpark on the possible cost. The Technical Committee is made up of engineers and planners from all the townships, cities, and villages, plus the two major universities, the County Road Commission, and the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority. There, our township requests meet up with similar requests from the cities and villages that have their own road department, like Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and so forth. The WATS Technical Committee then hands over all the requests to WATS staff (there are five professionals on staff), who organize them, prioritize them, and take them to the WATS Policy Committee, the group I attended today.

The Policy Committee is made up of representatives of all the same jurisdictions as the Technical Committee, but rather than being engineers and planners, they are elected board members or representatives of boards. This Committee is like a mini-legislature, with power to approve or disapprove of any requests and plans brought to it. It seldom disapproves, however, because by the time plans reach this group, they're pretty well balanced and thought out. But if any jurisdiction felt it was being discriminated against in some way, it would be able to object here and possibly raise enough support to rearrange the plans or block projects. There were about a dozen motions voted on this morning, and every one passed unanimously.

Once the WATS Policy Committee approves a plan, it then goes to SEMCOG, the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, to make sure it fits in with the regional long-range plan. Plans approved by SEMCOG that require state funding (most of them do) go to the Michigan Department of Transportation for approval, and if they get the nod, they go to the US Department of Transportation for Federal funding approval. If it gets funded, it goes back through the chain and ends up on the desk of a Road Department or Commission official (overworked and understaffed) who will send it out for bids if it's over $1000 - and what project isn't?

So that's seven (7) layers that deal with each project or plan. Is this necessary? Well, probably it is. Look what American Insurance Group (AIG) did with Federal bailout money that was handed over for unsupervised use. Bonuses to executives who had ruined the company! I can see why many sharp eyes are needed to make sure taxpayer money doesn't end up in the wrong pockets.

It may be necessary, but the Law of Unintended Consequences kicks in here. The people in charge of transportation planning - the professionals - have to be so intimately aware of the bureaucratic maze, including twenty looming deadlines for applications, that long-term planning is undertaken with only half their attention. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 is a good example. All the planning agencies at today's WATS meeting mentioned that they were forced to drop all other activity to meet deadlines for stimulus fund applications. Stimulus money can't be used to administer the stimulus money, which makes sense in one way, but ends up totally overworking and stressing out a host of public servants, who are understaffed because of budget shortfalls and layoffs but are not allowed to (re-)hire anyone to help out.

So there we are: our shrinking tax dollars safeguarded by a host of public watchdogs who have no time to think carefully and creatively about the future. No wonder long-term plans end up being "business as usual" and more of the same. The mechanism of good government requires them to pump really hard to get through this year's work, like bicycling on a 100-k tour in low gear.

It's like having two equally important "road maps" to deal with: the actual roads, and the bureaucratic roads. Obviously, the professionals can't spend more than half their time navigating the roads and transit systems of the county; at least half their time has to be spent in the maze of government departments, boards, commissions, committees, funds, deadlines, forms, laws, rules, and executive orders. Drowning in a sea of red tape.

That's where citizens' groups like Wake Up Washtenaw come in. It's our role to make sure the vision doesn't die in committee. Hold on to it!

1 comment:

  1. Larry,

    Thanks for visiting and commenting on my blog earlier in the week!

    I certainly can appreciate your frustration derived from the very well described bureaucratic chains of command in this post.

    The layers you described are a part of life and as you said, not excessively redundant given how lack of oversight has crippled our sense of reasonable and proper national behavior.

    Your closing statement is really all there is to it for people like us. Our blogs hopefully reach a few people a week and help plant the seed to think about becoming an agent of meaningful change. Whether that involves immediate household energy reduction or a new urge to become educated on the writings of the New Urbanists, its all something that will hopefully snowball over time until the notion of discarding convenient consumer culture becomes the mainstream mindset.

    Sadly I've found that attending and lending input to things like WATS or our Erie Canal Aqueduct design charette can be like screaming into the wind, but the blog is a way to coherently present a platform and hopefully reach like-minded individuals and encourage them along the same path.

    On that note, keep up the good work!