September 19, 2005
What Is Pork?

It is, as the ad men tell us, the "other white meat".  It is also a common term for wasteful government spending, at least in the United States.  But what makes a project pork?  How do we distinguish, for example, a much needed highway from a wasteful road to nowhere?

There is a standard answer to that question.  A project is pork if the expected benefits are less than the expected costs.  And there are standard ways to measure those expected benefits, at least for transportation projects.  Let's take a nearby example to see how this might work.  There are two bridges across Lake Washington between Seattle and the eastside suburbs.  The state highway department now wants to replace the northern bridge, part of Route 520, because they believe that it might not survive a major earthquake.

Now we can be certain that the benefits from this bridge are greater than its costs, because it was originally a toll bridge, and the tolls paid for it quickly, in fact even more quickly than the planners had predicted.  To calculate whether the benefits of replacing the bridge are greater than the costs, we would have to estimate the costs of losing the bridge and the chance that would happen.  That's beyond this brief post, but there is one feature of the proposed new bridge that we can immediately see is pork.

Despite the enormous increase in traffic on the 520 bridge, the proposed new bridge will not add any lanes to the current four.  But it will add lanes for bicycle traffic.  Will the benefits from these bicycle lanes be worth their costs?  No.  As I said, the bridge was originally paid for by car tolls.  Would it be possible to pay for the bicycle lanes with tolls?  Not by any combination of tolls and bicycle traffic that I can imagine.

Proponents of the bicycle lanes will say that I am missing some of the benefits to other people, to those who are not riding the bicycles.  And I would agree.  Bicycles do add less to air pollution than cars and they may cut health costs.  (I say may because, although riding a bicycle helps your heart, it also makes it more likely you will hurt yourself in an accident.)   But even adding in very generous amounts for such benefits doesn't raise the total high enough to justify the lanes.  So the bicycle lanes on the proposed 520 bridge are pork, green pork perhaps, since their proponents use environmental arguments to justify them.

And I am certain that the highway department knows these proposed bicycle lanes are green pork because the I-90 bridge across Lake Washington does have bicycle lanes — which don't get much use.

Cost-benefit analyses are most often used to judge the worth of transportation projects, but they can be used for almost any kind of government spending.  For instance, the government spends vast sums on job training, but these expenditures make sense only if those who receive the training earn enough after the training to pay for costs of the training.  (Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't.)  And cost-benefit analyses could be applied even more broadly.  I suspect, for instance, that entire academic departments at some of our public universities could not pass a cost-benefit test, and so could be considered pork.  (That the people in such departments often contribute to Democratic politicians is not entirely coincidental; those who benefit from pork almost always reward the politicians who supply it.)

Cross posted at Jim Miller on Politics.

(I was inspired to do this post by the efforts of N. Z. Bear and the Instapundit to collect examples of pork.   If you have more examples, you may want to pas them along to those two.

Lest you think I am anti-bicycle, I should add that I love riding my old mountain bike for exercise and will be going out later today.  I just don't think that the rest of you should pay vast sums to provide bicycle lanes for me.)

Posted by Jim Miller at September 19, 2005 09:12 AM | Email This
Comments
1. The cost of the bike lane is minimal. On the I-90 project (many years ago) it was justified primarily for engineering reasons (something to with balance). As a non-bicycler I could care less, but if this cost is still 1% of the total, it beats funding public art. Of course, that's undoubtedly part of the project too.

Posted by: BicycleFoe on September 19, 2005 09:41 AM
2. The cost of the bike lane is minimal. On the I-90 project (many years ago) it was justified primarily for engineering reasons (something to with balance). As a non-bicycler I could care less, but if this cost is still 1% of the total, it beats funding public art. Of course, that's undoubtedly part of the project too.

Posted by: BicycleFoe on September 19, 2005 09:42 AM
3. Let's see here...spend alot of taxpayer money building a newer bridge with with the same number of lanes, on one of the most congested roads in the area. This is not only pork, it is just the type of idiocy that is causing taxpayers to demand financial responsibility, and the same irresponsibility that has assured that I-912 is on the November ballot. I doubt that this project would even be finished before they request emergency appropriations for yet more funds for an additional 520 bridge, widening project, or light rail space.

Typical knee-jerk reaction to special interests, instead of sensible and responsible long range planning.

Posted by: dl on September 19, 2005 09:43 AM
4. Bicycle lanes suck. They exist not to benefit cyclists, but to ensure that motorists will not have to learn to deal with cyclists on the roadways. The fact that bike lanes are more dangerous for cyclists is, of course, a small price to pay so that people don't have to exercise their brains.

There are very few situations in which a bike lane has any advantages over a wide right-hand lane without a painted stripe.

Posted by: ScottM on September 19, 2005 09:44 AM
5. Where is the squirrel crossing lane?

Posted by: Fed UP on September 19, 2005 09:50 AM
6. Pork to one person is the mother's milk of necessity to another. What is needed is a budget non-party ombudsman, who's job is to evaluate Pork barrel projects. They only answer to the voter and they can be recalled if needed.

Posted by: PacMan on September 19, 2005 09:59 AM
7. "Pork": any dollar of government spending that would have been better left in the wallets of the taxpayers and spent by the taxpayer.

"Government 2005": parasitic organizations that live off the people, spend more than they take, and take as much as they can get away with.

"Wasteful spending": Governments' definition is that there is none. Peoples' definition is that it permeates government at every level, and if it was ever cut, would reduce government by half or more.

Posted by: Mike on September 19, 2005 10:01 AM
8. Per the WSDOT, the estimated cost of the bicycle/pedestrian lane on 520 is $70-80 million.
Bikes will not pay a toll if tolls are collected on the new bridge.

In addition, the city of Seattle and WSDOT are thinking about placing a Madison Park Connection (read bridge)to the SR 520 Regional Bicycle/Pedestrian Facility. This is placing an off ramp bridge for bikes and pedestrians to be connected at either 37th or 43d Ave. Estimated cost is $10-20 million.

Estimated total cost is $80-100 million. Now where could our money (taxes) be better spent?

Posted by: Taxpayer on September 19, 2005 10:16 AM
9. BAD PLANNING ON THE DEPT. OF TRANS.PART, DOES NOT CONSTITUTE AN EMERGENCY ON MY PART!!!!!

Posted by: TACOMA PHLASH on September 19, 2005 10:19 AM
10. Let's do the bike lane. And, out of respect for our progressive friends, let's not insult bicyclists by giving them a lane that is narrower or has a lower weight limit than the auto lanes. It's important to treat bicycles as equals.

Of course, there would be some danger that one of those thousands of motorists who sit daily in the parking lot known as 520 might look over at that empty lane next to them and file an initiative to make it a regular, general-purpose lane. Gee, wouldn't that be a shame?

On the other hand, if the bicycle lane is narrower or can bear less load than the other lanes, I say we stand on principle and oppose the lane altogether, chanting "Equality or nothing!"

Gotta talk to libs in their own language; they can't understand anything else.

Posted by: TB on September 19, 2005 10:36 AM
11. There are bus stops on either side of the bridge.
There are bike racks on every single bus.
Bike riders ride to the bus stop.
Bike riders put their bikes on the bike rack.
Bike rider and bike ride the bus across the bridge.
Bike rider is using mass transit.
Bike rider takes bike off rack on the far side.
Bike rider continues ride.
Bikes and riders use exsisting resources to cross lake.
No extra money spent on bike lanes.

It is just me or is such a concept too complicated for Seattle?

Posted by: JCM on September 19, 2005 10:46 AM
12. An intangible benefit of bike lanes is that they make Seattle a more green, outdoorsy, sporty place. We may disagree on whether this is good, and one should always look skeptically at expensive intangible benefits, but I think a good bike network enhances Seattle's character.

ScottM writes: There are very few situations in which a bike lane has any advantages over a wide right-hand lane without a painted stripe.

Debatable (have you traveled in Amsterdam?), but in any case, one of those situations is a 60mph interstate highway.

Posted by: Bruce on September 19, 2005 10:53 AM
13. Stop bagging on the bike lanes. They're an important part of the quality of life around here.

Can one make an economic argument based around the benefits of bikes? Sure, but it's mostly blowing smoke. BUT - why do we build parks? Why build anything nice? The reason is that it's nice to have and makes Seattle a great place to live.

Jim - your comment regarding the I-90 bike lanes not getting used is flat out wrong. People commute over them, jog on them, and are on them 24/7.

Posted by: steve_dog on September 19, 2005 11:01 AM
14. Stop bagging on the bike lanes. They're an important part of the quality of life around here.

Can one make an economic argument based around the benefits of bikes? Sure, but it's mostly blowing smoke. BUT - why do we build parks? Why build anything nice? The reason is that it's nice to have and makes Seattle a great place to live.

Jim - your comment regarding the I-90 bike lanes not getting used is flat out wrong. People commute over them, jog on them, and are on them 24/7.

Posted by: steve_dog on September 19, 2005 11:02 AM
15. If you want "outdoorsy" & "sporty", bike your brains out around through Juanita.

The bridges are for motorized transport....

Posted by: alphabet soup on September 19, 2005 11:02 AM
16. steve_dog - If you look at the post carefully, you'll see that I said that the I-90 bike lanes don't get much use, not that they are unused. Do you think they carry even 1 percent of the traffic on that bridge?

As for the intangible benefits, I didn't exclude them in the post. I just don't think that they are worth what they cost in this case.

If I were spending 100 million to decorate Seattle, as you suggest, I think I could do better than spending it on bicycle lanes.

(I find it interesting, by the way, that you make such a Seattle-centric argument, since the money will come from the entire state. Perhaps, instead of bicycle lanes to decorate Seattle, we should do something for, say, Yakima, a city with serious problems.)

Posted by: Jim Miller on September 19, 2005 11:29 AM
17. Thanks for replying, Jim:
If you look at the post carefully, you'll see that I said that the I-90 bike lanes don't get much use, not that they are unused. Do you think they carry even 1 percent of the traffic on that bridge?

In comparison to cars, there are few bikes. However, "few" should be understood as "several hundred a day".

As for the intangible benefits, I didn't exclude them in the post. I just don't think that they are worth what they cost in this case.

Then in the name of fiscal conservancy, should we eliminate public parks and green spaces?

(I find it interesting, by the way, that you make such a Seattle-centric argument, since the money will come from the entire state. Perhaps, instead of bicycle lanes to decorate Seattle, we should do something for, say, Yakima, a city with serious problems.)

Sure. Such as? What does Yakima need in the way of transpo?

Posted by: steve_dog on September 19, 2005 12:07 PM
18. Bike lanes are almost irrelevant. If they are going to spend that much taxpayer money, the new construction must meet the needs of current and future users. Namely additional vehicle lanes. This area is already a bottle-neck, why spend mucho dineros just to have the same bottle-neck scenario. If the 520 bridge truely needs replaced for safety reasons, leadership must present a sensible solution that meets the current and future needs of the community.

It's like buying new clothes, do you waste your time and money investing in the size you used to be? Or do you wisely purchase the size you currently need, and will probably use in the future?

Posted by: dl on September 19, 2005 12:20 PM
19. JCM, its nice in concept and probably cheaper. But just to put it in perspective for you as a cyclist lets see what someone would have to do to put thier bike on the bus? Clip off their bike and put it on the rack, check that's easy. Now since this is Seattle they are: 50% of the time soaking wet, covered in road grime and smell like crap. They are now going to get on the bus, damage the floor with their cleats and drip all over the people standing on the bus. And if they are a lazy inconsiderate prick (aka Californian transplant) they'll sit down and make a seat on the bus unusable until either someone cleans it or the bus driver can stop long enough to do it. (I see that happen all the time in the winter.) Basically they are going to make a mess and p#ss people off. Maybe unfortunately we need a 'special' bike shuttle in this case rather than using the regular buses.

Jim fails to note: In addition to the new carpool lanes as currently designed the bridge is going to allow for an additional two lanes to be added in the future, and/or high capacity transit such as trains. If you put a cheapo bike lane in that extra space for say 15 years until you build something more serious more power to ya, at least you are using it for something.

And at least the new bridge will FINALLY have 10' shoulders for disabled vehicles and eliminate the merging HOV lanes, both of which are invaluable IMO. My experience from driving I-5 is that the single largest design flaw on that freeway is the lack of an area in many places for disabled vehicles to go and disappearing lanes.

Posted by: Chokai on September 19, 2005 12:25 PM
20. steve_dog,

Quality of life is a wonderful thing however each of us probably has a different idea as to what exactly constitutes that quality. For those who love to cycle, then bicycle lanes on roads and bridges most definately increases that quality.

Unfortunately however, a taxpayers wallet is finite, not infinite as our state government seems to believe. For that reason some fiscal responsibility needs to be applied when determining just how to spend our transportation (and for that matter any other) dollars. Our road system is designed for motor vehicle traffic. I certainly have no objection to sharing the road with bicycles but with the general road system in need of so many major repairs and upgrades, I most certainly object to spending my tax dollars on special lanes for bicycles - most especially because our transportation taxes come from motor vehicle fees ie; licenses and fuel taxes and not from any fees imposed on bicycles.

While your comparison to parks etc. has some merit, there are several distinguishing things that separate the two. 1) There are far more citizens - in fact, every citizen - that can avail themselves of parks than of bike lanes. The disabled come to mind right off the bat. 2) Most parks are locally funded and are generally on the ballot as a local funding issue for the voters to decide. I haven't seen bike lanes on the 520 (or Hood Canal) Bridge on the ballot - have you? 3) Those parks funded by the state (and by the Federal Government) by and large are now charging for access and/or use in order to pay for upkeep.

At some point or another some form of fiscal responsibility needs to be excercised or we are going to "quality of life" ourselves to death.

Posted by: Jay on September 19, 2005 01:10 PM
21. Good point Jay! The thought of paying for a bike lane does not thrill me!I belive that si what parks are for!!

Posted by: Laurie on September 19, 2005 01:25 PM
22. Chokai,

Sounds like sitting next to the homeless guy ;-)

Posted by: JCM on September 19, 2005 01:28 PM
23. Looked up the SR520 Bridget project on the WSDOT pages. The $500 million they expect to get out of the soon-to-be-defeated Gas Tax is for DESIGN-not building the damn thing! That requires $1.7 billion to $2.9 billion MORE!!! How much is that per running foot of bike lane?

Posted by: john425 on September 19, 2005 01:43 PM
24. JCM, yeah but homeless guys have not traditionally been much of a problem on the "pretty" buses to/from the Eastside. ;-)

John425 yes that is an expensive bike lane. But engineering costs for a major project like a skyscraper or complex highway bridge can easily run more than 25% of the cost of the project. A commonly used example is a $250M 50 story skyscraper built in Manhattan a few years back. The building was an entirely private project and therefore in theory nearly ideal in terms of efficiency. The costs broke down as follows:

Engineering and design: $90M
Actual Construction: $135
Land purchase, advert, administrative: $25

This would mean that the $500M for the DOT if it covers ALL design costs for a potentially $2.9B project is a helluva deal and still a pretty good one for a $1.7B. But based on the commercial baseline on a $2.9B project even $500M is likely to not be enough.

Posted by: Chokai on September 19, 2005 03:23 PM
25. Does being healthy really save society money? I've read studies that show smokers save money because they die young (thereby not collecting Social Security) and quickly (cancer, heart problems) rather than old (collecting SS for decades) and slowly (dementia, wasting away, nursing homes) and so on.

Maybe we should encourage more people to be sedentary and smoke?

Posted by: Dennis on September 19, 2005 04:05 PM
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