In the midst of violent protests, police violence, and a pandemic, I’m thinking about a road.
It’s not much of a road; just a short stretch of University St., directly west of Friends University, where I’ve taught since 2006. Over those 14 years, I have biked back and forth on that 1/10th of a mile stretch, which dead-ends 50 ft. short of Meridian Ave., probably over 7000 times. It’s the final leg of my normal commute route; I bike from my home in west Wichita eastbound on Maple St., cutting south to University at West St. As this segment of University doesn’t intersect Meridian, I just ride on the railroad crossing to pop back onto University when the road dead-ends, at which point it’s a straight shot to campus. My westbound return follows the same route, which I’ve ridden so often I can navigate this part of University with my eyes closed. Except I can’t right now, because the road is all torn up. (And yes, I have still biked regularly into the campus over the past two months, letting myself into my office while the whole campus stood almost entirely empty; the camera on my office computer is a lot better for recording lectures and conducting online classes than mine at home.)
Of course, the construction isn’t any kind of real problem; I can just bike around the bulldozers and dump trucks, and besides the rear entrance to the parking lot for Friends’s Garvey Art Center is right there if I can’t get through the construction. There are a couple of single-family homes along the street, so it was presumably greater hassle for them–but since everything else which borders both sides of the road belongs to my university, it’s mostly folks like me who use it. And while I have no right to or responsibility for the road in any kind of formal sense, I nonetheless found myself somewhat curious about it all. Maybe a little bothered, even.
Why bothered? Well, partly because in the midst of the present pandemic, every penny counts. The job losses which followed in the wake of the life-preserving shutdowns that COVID-19 made necessary have resulted in record unemployment claims, and that means both major declines in tax revenue and major strains on the budgets of the cities of Kansas. Wichita is looking at an $11 million dollar deficit in the coming fiscal year, and as Chase Billingham of Wichita State has noted, while a little of the CARES millions which the federal government has designated as aid for state and local governments has been made available to some targeted programs in the city (like transit), Wichita’s general fund itself hasn’t received a dime. That may change, and the economy may bounce back more quickly than most economists are predicting. Still, with the advice offered by Charles Marohn’s Strong Towns very much on my mind, especially when it comes to what cities like Wichita can do to strengthen the neighborhoods which are crucial to getting us through this time of transition, I kept looking at that construction as I biked past it and wondered: did this road really need to be repaired? Was this the best use of the city’s money at this time? Who asked for or decided upon this repair job, and how much does it cost, anyway?
So I started shooting out e-mails. It quickly became clear that this was a construction job that came from the city, not from any stakeholders along the road. (Both the university president and our director of maintenance first found out about the construction when they received a notification from Kansas Paving, a company contracted by the city, that work on the street was about to start.) With some help from Paul Gunzelman, the Assistant City Engineer for the city of Wichita, I was eventually put in contact with Aaron Henning, a maintenance engineer with the city’s Public Works & Utilities department. They were able to supply me with city documents and answer all my questions–well, all except the one I consider to be most important, but that one isn’t actually an engineering question: it’s a political one.
I have nothing but compliments for Paul and Aaron; for every annoying query I put to them about the meaning of acronyms like “OP3” (“Outsourced Pavement Preservation Program”–it’s been years, apparently, since the bulk of the routine maintenance of Wichita’s more than 5100 miles of road has been handled by the city’s own workers) or “PCI” (“Pavement Condition Index,” a numerical rating determined in part by staff members who, over the course of 18 months, physically visit every single segment of the aforementioned 5100 miles of road), they had a thorough answer. Insofar as this little stretch of University beside Friends which I know so well goes, the story goes like this:
The PW&U Department has developed a computerized method of ranking various inputs regarding roads (called “DST,” for Decision Support Tool), including not just the observed condition of the street, but its primary material (concrete or asphalt?), and whether repairs on the road would fall under the label “preservation” (acting to prevent further deterioration) or “mitigation” (acting to limit the extent of already progressing deterioration). It turns out that this little concrete stretch of University had a PCI of 35, the second lowest ranked concrete street segment in the whole city. And so when 2019’s budget was set (in which the OP3 was given $9.5 million, $3 million from the city’s General Fund, $6.5 million out of the mostly debt-financed Capital Improvement Plan, with a little over $1 million specifically earmarked for repairing concrete roads), it got prioritized within the funds allocated to District 4, in which Friends University and this street is found. Hence, come late spring of 2020 (and no, I didn’t bother asking about the delay; I know how things can pile up), a contract was drawn up for about 55% of the segment’s total paved area to be patched and replaced, at a cost of about $45,000, and off Kansas Paving went to do its job. All clear?
Well, sure. Again, I make no criticism of Aaron or Paul or any other city engineers or any of the PW&U staff, and I foresee no reason to criticize the professionalism or efficiency of Kansas Paving. A large number of people, all responding to one another, all passing information and decisions and money along, all getting a road in better shape. This is the way cities should work, right?
But here is where I say–maybe not? Especially, maybe not right now? I go back to my original point: this was a stretch of road I knew very, very well. Was it in great shape? Not at all. Was it in terrible shape? Again, not at all. (Just look at the Google Map photo of it above.) It was a perfectly serviceable 1/10th-mile-long access road use by 1) a couple of private homeowners, 2) those Friends staff, faculty, or students who found a need to drive the 530 feet to the back entrance of the Garvey Art Center, and 3) me, biking east and west on the road, morning and afternoon, year after year after year. As Aaron assured me, no one put in any kind of request to fix this road; it was the DST that determined its time had come, and once calculations were made about what kind of mitigation vs. preservation could be done, costs were tabulated and people were put to work. At the total estimated cost of, roughly speaking, an entire yearly salary of the average probation officer, carpet installer, librarian, title examiner, payroll clerk, or–hey!–civil engineering technician here in the state of Kansas.
Wait, it doesn’t work that way!–that’s what everyone who read the previous paragraph will say, and they’d be right; it’s not like there is any easy way to all of a sudden stop some existing flow of money and divert it to someone or something else. But this is the important, political question I mentioned before: why? Especially during a pandemic, when our city–like cities all across the country–is facing an immediate, and potentially long-enduring, fiscal crisis, why is there no mechanism for people to look at the flows of money which course through our, or any, city’s systems, and reconsider? Don’t forget that money spent on roads is money that invariably sets up additional maintenance costs, costs that only increase as time goes by. That’s not a criticism of those people like Aaron or Paul who have spent their whole professional careers trying to balance so many conflicting demands, and discover the most sustainable way to stretch the dollars they have. If anything, it’s a suggestion that maybe they’ve haven’t been supported in going far enough in their thinking about what really needs to be preserved, versus what can stand for just a little mitigation, versus what could really, honestly, just maybe, if only for right now, be allowed to be left alone.
I look around Wichita, and I see–just while walking our dog around our west Wichita neighborhood–more people gardening, more people fixing up their homes, more people setting out chairs and hanging out with one another in their driveways or on the sidewalks, just talking, than I can recall from any previous year. Obviously the fact that restaurants, bars, and other restaurants were closed, and many people were working from home, has been a primary cause of much of that–but perhaps not the only cause? The economic costs of the pandemic have been terrible, and are likely only to continue–and in response, people have been trying to find other, different ways of getting things done. One thing that many of them (that many of us) will need to continue exploring these new, perhaps more sustainable alternatives to work and food and shelter and entertainment is–as the Strong Towns Toolkit points out–cash, both local and immediate. Cities need to hang on to what the fiscal reserves they have, and think carefully and creatively about new ways to spend it.
Am I saying that the half-dozen or so workers I’ve seen out on University over the past couple of weeks couldn’t use the money? Of course not! I’m completely open to the idea that generating road work for Kansas Paving is an entirely defensible act of Keynesian spending, of priming the pump. But then again, if you really want to see the money the city has going directly to the city’s neighborhoods and residents, then why not just cancel all the orders for sand and 2x4s and concrete which the University repair job requires, and just deliver whatever portion of that $45,000 would have been dedicated to wages directly to the workers (and maybe with a little extra thrown in), and then keeping the rest on hand? It’s not like there aren’t problems aplenty which challenge Wichita’s ability to move in a more sustainable way through this crisis.
For example, I think about local farmers and food producers I know–in Valley Center, Haysville, Andover–who have struggled to be part of a more sustainable food system here in Wichita; like perhaps a third of all small food operations across the country right now, the Covid Depression is threatening to wipe many of them out. Years ago, when drought threatened south-central Kansas, Wichita’s government found the money to establish a rebate program (which still exists today!) incentivizing how people were spending money on sprinkling their lawns and washing their clothes. Surely some cutbacks on little-used roads could provide the city with the accounting flexibility to do something similar with one of our greatest assets: the fact that, unlike many comparable mid-sized cities, it’s really quite easy here to grow food?
Well, eventually this little stretch of University will be done, and I won’t see during my commute the sort of work which set my mind going on this long tangent. There are, absolutely, many more important topics to argue about right now than this one. But perhaps this small issue could be, should be, a way to get at a much larger one–namely, how to politically move our city to reconsider, or maybe just take further, the ways in which it seeks to prioritize and make more durable the decisions it makes and the money it spends. There will be, I am certain, perhaps 10 or so people that will be really happy with this fixed-up road. I may even be one of them! But I can think of other ways, more genuinely and democratically empowering ways, that the city leaders could spend money that might make even more people happy, in the long run. Here’s hoping they can start seeing them (and that we will know how to help them do so!).