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The Transparency Project: Capital Improvement — An Introduction

28 Apr

As part of its Transparency Project, Mode Shift has been studying the City of Omaha’s Capital Improvement Program (CIP) for over a year.

Basics of the CIP

Let’s look at the CIP’s goals, as described in the CIP itself.

The Capital Improvement Program should provide the “fiscal status and the physical progress” of the City’s projects in Transportation,  Environment, Parks and Recreation, Public Safety, and Public Facilities.

For each project, the CIP is to include:

  • A description, the total cost, and any change in status
  • Amount of City funds spent the previous year
  • Amount of funds appropriated for the current year
  • Amount of funds budgeted for the next six years

The funds are broken down by source: City funds (mainly Street Bonds for transportation projects), federal funds, and other local funds.

Projects are to be ranked to ensure they align with the City master plans. Project lists are to be compiled by various task forces, examined for conformity with the master plan, reviewed by the Mayor’s CIP Priority Committee, and matched with the budget.

Updated annually, the CIP is approved by the City Council in August and is to be published shortly after.

That’s the theory.

Studying the CIP Is Fun

Our transparency team looked at a lot of details, not just the numbers inside the most recent CIP, but also the numbers in the previous 8 CIPs. We studied the process for generating the CIP. This involved visits to City Council, City planners, the mayor’s office, City finance, and MAPA (the agency that coordinates the disbursements of federal funds).

As you can imagine, the resulting material is pretty dry. It is doubtful that the words “Fun” and “CIP” were ever grouped together, but that’s what we will do with the five blogs will follow the steps on Mode Shift’s CIP board game, our fun look at serious issues:

Click on the thumbnail above for a view of the Mode Shift CIP Game Board

Objective: A Better City

Here is a preview of the 5 blogs:

Blog 1 – What’s Inside the CIP? We compare what should be in the CIP with what is actually there, and note these shortcomings:

  • The totals don’t add up
  • The narratives are not updated
  • Expenditures are missing; appropriations are unreliable

Blog 2 – Who funds the transportation projects? We look at the source of funds and note several issues or questions:

  • Unlikely doubling of City funds in 2020. Murky source of financing of City funds.
  • The use of federal funds plummets 90% by 2020, yet MAPA sees no similar drop.
  • By 2020, 100% of federal funds go to automobile capacity, yet MAPA sees funds available for other modes.
  • Some local funds are not secured, so we don’t know if a project is realistic or just a notion.

Blog 3 – What can we learn from the past? Only 30% of the past cost is available, but based on that 30%, we can say that:

  • Capital budget: Over a quarter of the projects will be dropped and replaced with others. Overall, the projects will be 12% over budget.
  • Appropriations: There is a wild swing between appropriations and cost, with several projects built without any appropriations, others well over budget.

We can expect that projects will be delayed, cancelled and added during the year, but these changes should be reported, appropriations should be adjusted, and past cost overruns explained.

Blog 4 – What are the CIP projects? Where are they? The Mode Shift Map of Projects will be analyzed and a view of projects by city sector will be added.

Blog 5 – Who selects the projects? How are citizens engaged in the process? The CIP and City charter outline a formal ranking process to ensure that the projects are in line with master plans. Mode Shift found that the transportation master plan is ignored and found no evidence that project rankings are taking place. The mayor’s office selects the projects, and the reasons for selection are not public.

The issues listed above are not new. Although some of them (missing expenditures, narratives not updated) surfaced in the past two years, the main issues (lack of transparency, lack of project ranking and citizen engagement) date back to 2008, or even before. The CIPs prior to 2008 are not available to us, but we assume they are no different.

Fortunately, all of these issues can be fixed. Join us for the five next blogs from our Transparency Project, as we explain the CIP and its shortcomings, and make suggestions for fixing the CIP for a better city.

A Pothole Is Not a Pothole Is Not a Pothole

27 Apr

Omaha World Herald columnist, Matthew Hansen, tackled Omaha’s quadrennial hand wringing about the quality of our city streets in his April 27th column, “Ahead of election, those who live on Omaha’s worst streets express a crumbling faith in the city.” Heady stuff, no? One of Mode Shift Omaha’s board members, Lee Meyers, has been studying the city’s capital improvement program and budget for street maintenance. He sent Mr. Hansen the following response:


As a former journalist, one of the modern wrinkles that I dislike is turning complex situations into a horse race because a horse race becomes easier to make dramatic and emotional. You captured the emotion of Omaha’s street repairs, but conveyed few of the complexities.

When a subdivision was built without standard city streets (roadbed with drainage and a thick concrete surface), the subdivision developer pocketed profits and the homeowners along the street pocketed savings. The subdivision comes into the city with those profits remaining with the developer and the homeowners. Back then, the developer and homeowners gloried in their savings and with their quaint non-city feeling of a slower street. The trouble comes from the fact that the non-standard city street does not hold up (it is sub-standard). The street deteriorates more quickly — but the profits remain in the developer’s pocket and the savings remain in the homeowners’ pockets.

Now, why should we in the poorer sections of the city (the east) pay to build those streets to cover the expenses pocketed by the developer and the homeowners?  The facts remain that suburban home owners do not pay enough in property taxes, wheel taxes and gas taxes to pay for the streets that they think they want. Having good streets is easy — pay for them. We are not paying for them now. And if we have a sub-standard street, we have never paid for them.

I belong to a non-profit, Mode Shift Omaha, that has done a lot of digging into the Omaha Capital Improvement Program (CIP). Omaha under all political horses continues to add more street miles than all our taxes can maintain. The most egregious of the false whiners are those who have pocketed money in the past and now want all the city to subsidize their new streets. Mode Shift is trying to get the financial numbers to show how much per acre subdivisions pay in taxes and how much per acre each subdivision costs in city services. The costs exceed the taxes paid in most case and we’d hope to have help to dig out more actual numbers — but it is extremely difficult digging. Emotions and past poor choices get in the way — along with the complexities of government.

Lee Myers

Bottom line: with all the infrastructure needs throughout the city, should the city-wide tax payers be shouldering the cost to upgrade or maintain streets that have always been substandard?

3′ Season is upon us!

7 Apr

As Omaha shakes off the chill of winter and welcomes the dawn of spring, we are beginning to see the kind of weather that makes us want to jump on our bikes and ride. With more people on bikes hitting the road, it’s a good time to review safe cycling and driving practices to keep everyone safe while sharing the road.

First, we encourage all people on bikes to ride to their level of comfort. If you don’t feel safe on the street, no worries. Omaha has an expanding system of trails for people to walk and cycle. Some people feel more comfortable riding on sidewalks. In Omaha it is legal to ride on sidewalks, except in the Old Market. A good rule of thumb, however, is to ride no faster than a pedestrian can move. Speeding down sidewalks on a bike can be dangerous, especially with driveways and intersections where people in cars aren’t looking for, or expecting, a fast moving person on a bike in the pedestrian space.

Also, a quick reminder: when sharing a space (such as a trail or sidepath) with people walking and people on bikes, always make sure to give a voiced notice when passing. A quick, “on your left!” will avoid startling someone unaware of your presence. Continue reading