On May 15, 2018, Omaha voters will be asked to approve $151 million of Street And Highway Transportation Bonds (which we will refer to as “Street Bonds”). In return for this approval, the City commits to complete some transportation projects.
Mode Shift believes it is incumbent on the City to perform three steps:
- Inform the voters what projects it plans to fund with the Street Bonds
- Account for Street Bond spending and progress of the planned projects
- Disclose how it selects the projects that receive Street Bond funding
We covered the first topic in Part 1, where we reported that the City gets high marks, and the second topic in Part 2, where we reported that the City veers wildly from its plans without accountability.
In this final blog, we examine the third step and find that the City ignores the transparent and objective governance promised by the City charter and follows an opaque, visionless, subjective process that perpetuates the fiscally unsustainable, disjointed, band-aid projects that the City’s own Transportation Master plan warns against.
No Project Ranking
In 2017 Mode Shift reported that the Capital Improvement Program (CIP) described a project ranking process and that the City failed to follow the process. In the 2018 CIP, references to project ranking have been removed. Now the process describes a vague subjective evaluation that places the City’s Master Plan last:
Part of the City Charter Is Ignored
References to ranking and objective selection criteria have been removed from the CIP, but they can’t be removed from the City Charter as quoted on the first page of the CIP:
“The Planning Director … shall prepare … a consolidated schedule of the projects … showing the character and degree of conformity or non-conformity of each project as it relates to the master plan.”(1)
This seems pretty straightforward: The Planning Director produces a list of projects and ranks their degree of alignment with the master plan.
When the City failed to produce a list of ranked projects and Mode Shift pointed out to the Mayor’s office that the City Charter required such a list, the City’s responded:
So when the Mayor’s office reads the City Charter, all that is required is a “consolidated schedule” of the projects. The second part, about each project’s “degree of conformity” with the master plan, is ignored.
No, Mode Shift is not misinterpreting the Charter’s language: The City is ignoring the Charter by failing to produce a “consolidated schedule of the projects proposed by the departments showing the character and degree of conformity or non-conformity of each project as it relates to the master plan.”(1)
“The Transportation Master Plan sets forth the vision and goals for the transportation network in Omaha.” (2018 CIP, page 17)
“…ensure that the schedule of projects contained in the CIP is based on … the goals and priorities found in the City’s Master Plan and other planning documents.” (2018 CIP, page 2)
Both of these quotes sound good, but in reality there is no vision guiding Omaha’s transportation network. Here’s why:
- As previously reported, the City’s Transportation Master Plan, adopted in 2012, has been neglected, none of its recommendations have been followed, and Mode Shift’s follow up request has been ignored.
- The CIP refers to the City Master Plans and states how they are updated and valuable, but there is nothing tying them to CIP project selection apart from “Continued coordination of the CIP with the master planning process” (whatever that means).
The Transportation Master Plan has been neglected and is not tied the CIP project selection process, so claiming that it “sets forth the vision and goals for the transportation network in Omaha.” is … absurd.
It is easy to verify that sorry fact: ask City Council or a City official to disclose how the 47 projects slated to receive $151 million in Street Bonds align with the Transportation Master Plan. The response, if there is one, will be subjective generalities – anything but the rigorous project ranking of every CIP project as specified by the Transportation Master Plan and by the City Charter.
No Formal Public Input
“…ensure that the schedule of projects contained in the CIP is based on…needs identified by the public…” (2018 CIP, page 2)
This quote about “needs identified by the public” sounds good, but subsequent portions of the CIP that define the process in detail don’t include any steps for public input(3)
And the Results Are…
Let’s look at the results of the City’s rudderless project selection: Where does the “CIP Task Force” decides to spend City funds? The answer is:
The trend in Capital Budget allocation is similar:
The CIP Task Force is defaulting to unsustainable band-aid projects (street widening) rather than following a transportation vision like the one proposed in Omaha’s neglected Transportation Master Plan.
Despite words affirming a conformity to visions, master plans, and public input, the City’s actions and specific processes ignore master plans, objective project evaluation, and public input, and the City’s project execution does not follow the CIP plan – for every reported year. Based on past experience, here’s what voters can expect if the $151 million Street Bond issue is approved on May 15:
Omaha voters deserve better governance from the City. They deserve the project selection process outlined by the City Charter(1) and the project execution reports promised by the CIP:
This blog series focused on the May 15, 2018 ballot vote for $151 million of Street And Highway Transportation Bonds (“Street Bonds”).
The City of Omaha is asking voters to approve a spending of property taxes that is more than double the historical average, using a governance model with undisclosed, vague, and visionless project selection criteria, wild deviation from budgets and execution plans, inadequate and obscure reporting, and that perpetuates the fiscally unsustainable, disjointed, band-aid projects that the City’s own Transportation Master plan warns against.
Regardless of the voters’ decision, Mode Shift urges Omaha citizens to contact their City Council or other officials and demand the governance they deserve, the one promised in the City Charter and Capital Improvement Program documents.
- For a the complete text, see page iii of the 2018 CIP, or click here for a copy with Mode Shift’s annotations.
- Letter from the Mayor’s office, August 10, 2017. For full text, click here.
- Sources: Page 4, paragraph C “Project Selection” makes no mention of public input (just “City staff” who “internally evaluate” priorities), and the flow chart on the same page makes no mention of the public.
- For details of the numbers behind this chart, click here.
This does not in any way sound like something I would vote for. But I have to ask, what happens if the voters reject it? What would the City do? Would there be better adherence to the heretofore ignored procedures? Would the City create an avenue (sorry for the pun) for public input and stronger oversight? Would the City just quit repairing potholes? Does anyone know? Would voting this down shock the City enough to get it to behave correctly?
Good questions. (1) As of January 2018, the City had at least $32 million left in the 2014 Street Bond fund. At historical spending rates, this should last over two years and allow the City to postpone the bond issue until next year after they get their governance straight. (2) The least we can do is pressure the City Council to enforce the project ranking required by charter and hold the project execution accountable to follow the plan or report variances. Steps like that would give some assurances that the $151 million at stake in the vote will be subject to reasonable governance. (3) This is not about potholes, which are repaired with gas tax and wheel tax. This is for capital improvement projects with a life of at least 15 years. However, any street widening adds lane-miles to maintain and this compounds the pothole problems.
Thanks for your comments!
Can you imagine what it would look like if the money spent by Work Type was inverse. Spending the most on Transit, the least on motorist capacity and repairs? Repairs are needed, but think of the difference.