The other day a resident came up to me and asked: why are we spending all that money signalizing and adding turning lanes to the Franklin-Peters intersection?
I’m glad they asked. But first, a little background.
There have been more than two dozen serious accidents at that intersection since 2005 plus a bunch of others that were just fender-benders. And the volume of traffic there keeps increasing. It was clear that something had to be done, so this summer, we’re spending about $600,000 to install a traffic signal. We were able to bundle enough to make it happen by combining federal safety money, which is managed by the state, with Township funds. So that really is a lot of money.
And it offers a perfect snapshot of why it’s become so difficult to make public improvements anywhere. First of all, since federal money is involved, it follows a whole different set of rules from ordinary projects. There’s a sad truth behind the maxim ‘don’t make a federal case of it.’ It’s that so many additional steps and hearings and documents and studies and consultants are required to satisfy federal regulations, that progress slows to a crawl. And all of it costs money.
Planning and design costs used to represent 6 or 7 percent of the project’s total. Now they’re closer to 25 percent. In Pennsylvania, as in most of the rest of the country, we over-design roads to accommodate the most reckless and irresponsible drivers. We strip away any trees they could conceivably hit. We bulldoze hills and level bumps and engineer everything else we do to reduce the risk of liability lawsuits.
Then the federal-state wage rules kick in, so that costs become at least 15 percent higher than local projects, where the rule doesn’t apply. Inspectors need to have different certifications than for other projects, and we have to pay a premium for that. And environmental specialists have to be hired to prove, just as we had to with the Northwest Connector Project, that the road improvement won’t disturb the habitat of the elusive massasauga rattlesnake – a species which has never actually been seen in Cranberry.
And that’s not even counting the rising cost of materials – asphalt, steel, gravel, and so on.
So there’s no single smoking gun behind the high cost of public improvement projects. But the cumulative impact of all these developments has made it virtually impossible to build new things and made those which do go forward breathtakingly expensive. By giving virtual veto power to anyone or anything that might object to a project for any reason, we have allowed ourselves to fall hostage to our own democratic impulse and good intentions. And that’s why the Franklin-Peters project is so expensive.