The far ends of the political spectrum too often are unyielding and unrealistic. They rarely get what they want and, as a result, generally live in a state of disappointment.
Those of us who do not live on the extremes usually do not get precisely what we want but, at times, reasoned compromise gets us some of what we want, and we realize that is often the best we can expect. Reasoned compromise also allows us to keep government costs, and taxes, in check.
Mequon recently debated bike lanes along Donges Bay Road between Wauwatosa and Cedarburg Roads. Some people thought the lanes were an imperative. They said that any compromise was short-sighted and risked public safety. Others thought the lanes were a total waste of money. Of course, in this polarized era, that is how issues are spun.
Neither absolutist position prevailed.
The Common Council decided to build the lanes. The lanes will be five feet wide – the recommended width – for the entire 2-1/2 mile area discussed. However, to save cost, the lanes will not be flared at intersections. That compromise saved $50,000, and reduced the cost of the new bike lanes by over 70%. Mequon will get these safer lanes for around $20,000.
The lanes as approved are acceptable under the standards of the National Association of City Transportation Officials. Is it the “best” design? That is the wrong question. In fact, even with flared shoulders, the lanes would not be the “best” design. The best paths are detached, or have a median between them and the road, but they cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. If the city decided to have the best of everything, we could expect to double or triple our taxes, and that would not be the “best.”
However, the design as amended improves safety.
The issue first came to the Council in November. It was clear that, if there had been a vote in November, there would have been no lanes. At least five aldermen (a majority) would have voted against the resolution.
Still, two aldermen who wanted these lanes pushed for a vote in November. They made their point, but if they had prevailed on having a vote in November, the request for lanes would have failed in its entirety.
Why would this have failed in November? The majority of the Council was concerned about adding new costs. The Council had just passed a difficult budget. The budget included a variety of cuts; however, for the first time in many, many years, there was a slight tax increase. The Council did not provide for bike lanes (or other similar expenditures) in the budget. Instead, it provided for safety services and the repairs and maintenance of existing city assets. The month after the Council passed this difficult budget, city staff brought this unbudgeted expenditure before the Council. The timing was wrong, and the proposal flew in the face of the budget debates.
Instead of voting in November, I convinced the Council to table the matter until December. I wanted citizen input and more information. I also wanted to see if there were other alternatives.
By the time of the December meeting, I had sent out two email blasts, and heard from a number of people. A majority of the people who responded wanted lanes, but there were certainly many opponents. Unfortuantely, the vast majority of people who read my emails did not respond. I also learned that there are alternatives. I proposed the alternative without flared intersections. City staff acknowledged it was an acceptable alternative.
Instead of defeating the proposal, the majority of the Council voted for it, as modified.
The Council saved $50,000 from the original proposal. For a city, $50,000 might not seem (to some people) like a lot of money. It is only about $2 per Mequon resident, or $4.60 per household. However, this is not an isolated incident. When government fails to closely monitor and value-engineer spending, the over-expenditures add up. Ignoring details and smaller expenditures are big contributors to government, on all levels, taxing and spending too much.
By saving $50,000, Mequon can put a two-inch asphalt overlay on a half mile of failing roads, or replace failing equipment in City Hall, or pay for a police officer for a half of a year.
On the other hand, infrastructure and safety services are among the primary functions of city government. Reasonable improvements like this are a public good within its responsibilities, not an example of government over-reach.