This is the fifth and final post from the Transparency series, following the steps of the Mode Shift CIP game board. We conclude our study of the City of Omaha’s Capital Improvement Program (CIP), with a look at these questions:
- Who selects the CIP projects?
- How are citizens engaged in the process?
City Charter and CIP Process
The CIP text quotes the City Charter and explains the process used to formulate the CIP:
Here is a summary of the differences between the process specified in the CIP and City Charter, and the actual process as we discovered in our analysis and after talking with many people working in City Hall:
|City Charter and CIP||Actual Process|
|The Planning Director ranks projects for alignment with the City’s Master Plan.||The Planning Department has no records of any ranking.|
|Unranked projects will not be funded…unless the Planning Department fails to do the ranking.||The Planning Department has no records of any ranking, so we assume the loophole is used every year.|
|There are several other mentions of the project ranking process and how it assures an unbiased, systematic selection process that aligns with the City Master Plans.||The Planning Department has no records of any ranking.|
|“The Transportation Master Plan sets forth the vision and goals for the transportation network in Omaha”||The Transportation Master Plan has been largely ignored and neglected.|
|The CIP formulation process has no provisions for public input.||Unfortunately, this is true. Comments to City Council in January and February may make their way to the selection committee, but there is no formal process.|
In short, the City Charter is not followed and the process is closed to the public. The City says one thing and does another in a process that is closed to the public.
The Transportation Master Plan
The Transportation Master Plan (officially the Transportation Element of the City’s Master Plan – we’ll refer to it as the TMP) was updated and approved in 2012 and has been mostly ignored and neglected ever since.
For example, the TMP recommended that the City develop “its own project selection metric system to evaluate potential projects in a more comprehensive context”. A team met a few times (two Mode Shift board members participated), and then meetings stopped without completing anything. Mode Shift’s written follow up request to Public Works was ignored. Some of the comments from Public Works’ engineers show that they never bought into it (they said things such as: “City Council approved the Transportation Master Plan because a bunch of hippies were bused in to testify for it”).
The bulk of the TMP’s recommendations were ignored or a superficial compliance was achieved with a document produced and filed without delivering any of the intended benefits.
As taxpayers, it is sickening to hear and read how the City says it follows the vision “set forth” by the TMP, knowing that it isn’t true, that some departments have such contempt for it, and that now, after years of neglect, the current TMP is out of date, based on old census numbers and traffic patterns; a waste of money and a missed opportunity that Omaha will feel for years.
Some readers may feel that Mode Shift is too severe in its judgement. We invite them to look at these details, which display actual quotes from City documents and contrast them with actual findings and the actual state of City streets. We invite the City to supply yearly CIP project rankings, TMP metrics, appropriation amendments, and other documents that they were unable to produce during interviews.
It is past time for the City to add windows to the project selection process, use the ranking mandated by City Charter, solicit public engagement, clean up the neglected Transportation Master Plan, and connect it to the selection process.
Mode Shift’s Transparency Project is not complete. Our efforts will continue until the average resident can easily access information about and provide input into how their tax dollars are being allocated and spent, especially with regard to transportation infrastructure projects. In this series of blog posts we have covered the findings so far:
- The CIP has several quality issues – totals don’t add up, narratives are not updated, expenditures are missing and appropriations are unreliable.
- The funding of the 2017-2022 generates many questions, with a doubling of City funds, a severe drop in federal funds, and local funds that are not identified.
- Only a fraction of past costs are available. Not only does this make it impossible to know what the City has accomplished in the past, what little data there is suggests that projects are routinely over budget and a majority of work suffers from schedule changes.
- The Mode Shift maps make use of the Capital Budget (a sound portion of the CIP that functions as it should) to show what and where the projects are.
- The CIP project selection process lacks the ranking mandated by the City Charter, is closed to the public, and ignores the Transportation Master Plan.
The Capital Improvement Program and the Transportation Master Plan must be improved to achieve their stated goals. Citizens should care because the current process is opaque and the CIP does not communicate the City’s achievements and intentions. City Council should care because the questions about the source of funds, the cost and schedule deviations, and the lack of City Charter mandated ranking undermine the credibility of a product that they approve.
We hope that this series of blog posts will motivate citizens and City officials to make improvements for a better city.