The $14 Million Parking Ramp: Is it Necessary and Can Pork Barrel Spending Evolve to Address the True Needs of Our Cities?

Posted In: Politics, National, State, Local, Opinion, News, Investigative Reporting, Local,   From Issue 666   By: Mike Thompson

21st August, 2008     0

Imagine the federal and state governments are combining to give Saginaw a one-time grant, no strings attached. Imagine the sum is $14 million. How would you choose to invest this money, to earn the maximum bang for the buck?

(A) Resurface 88 miles of local streets @ $160,000 per mile.
(B) Reconstruct 8.8 miles of major roadways @ $1.6 million per mile.
(C) Demolish 2,333 abandoned houses @ $6,000 apiece.
(D) Create an endowment at 5 percent interest to generate $700,000 annually; hire and equip 10 new police officers @ $70,000 apiece for long-term employment.
(E) Build a new exit ramp for northbound Interstate 675 that is five blocks closer to downtown.

Frankly, I can't think of many people who would answer (E), not in comparison to any of the first four.

But that is what Saginaw is getting, because strings are attached to the $14 million.

The reason is federal pork barrel spending.

Local streets are rubble, blight is everywhere, crime persists, but Saginaw is getting an exit ramp.

This is frustrating, because those 14 million bucks could do so much real good. I'm caused to enter an imaginary world in which leaders of a town like Saginaw would send the following memo:

August 21, 2008
TO: President Bush and the Congress, Governor Granholm and the Legislature
FROM: Saginaw residents and leaders

Thank you for the $14 million for a new northbound Interstate 675 ramp to service our downtown area, but to be honest, we do not feel a desperate need for this ramp. Therefore we are returning checks of $12 million and $2 million, respectively, to our federal and state governments.

This new ramp would be nice, because the original highway had such a lousy design. Motorists bound for downtown must exit all the way back at Sixth Street, and travel a half-mile through a partially blighted residential area. Out-of-towners sometimes get lost, and this does not leave a good impression.

However, the project is worth nowhere near $14 million, at least not in comparison to other needs. It seems, with all due respect, that this is among thousands of examples of federal pork barrel spending that costs all of us more than $50 billion annually.

We are fully aware that Saginaw and Michigan do not get our share. Still, we recognize that Americans across all 50 states talk about a need to make government more efficient, and to prevent the horrible legacy of overwhelming federal debt for our children and grandchildren. Someone has to begin somewhere. We are willing to make this $14 million sacrifice and give up our I-675 exit ramp, in hopes that we may inspire other communities to follow our example.

The Reality and the Dream

Fear not. Construction of the Interstate 675 ramp is virtually guaranteed to begin late next summer, and to conclude in the year 2012. Northbound motorists who now disembark near Sixth Street will exit closer to Warren Avenue.

The words in the mock memo have toyed in my mind for several years, ever since veteran U.S. Rep. Dale Kildee issued the big announcement of funds for I-675.

The intent here is not to criticize Representative Kildee; he seems so ageless, it is like having Dick Clark as our congressman - wonders of the seniority system.

Mr. Kildee and Saginaw are just playing the federal system like any other community. In regard to my proposed memo, it may seem foolhardy on first blush for an aging little Rust Belt town to try to cha

nge the workings of this huge bureaucracy.
Still, please do not dismiss this as naive idealism. The news reporter inside of me thinks maybe, just maybe, that the story of a town taking such a unique step might turn someone's head at The New York Times, or CBS, or CNN.

       

Momentum could build. The story of little Saginaw would gain a life of its own. Maybe change would take root, here during a time when our federal debt is surpassing $10 trillion.

 Maybe, even, Saginaw leaders could win back the $14 million and reprogram the money for other truly vital purposes.

Saginaw's main movers and shakers for the I-675 ramp have been the Chamber of Commerce, through government affairs VP Veronica Horn, and Saginaw Future Inc., through CEO JoAnn Crary.

Veronica is such a great sport that she took time to listen to my seemingly inane idea, while JoAnn had the good fortune of being on vacation. Also, Ms. Horn has the perspective of being a former top aide to Congressman Bob Traxler, and then to Jim Barcia.

Right off the bat, Veronica notes that I am far from the first to ask why Saginaw couldn't use the $14 million for something else. She says she understands.

 "There are many of us working to get ANY kinds of dollars back to tear down abandoned houses or to hire more police and fire," she says. "In essence, we look for monies anywhere we can find them for different projects in Saginaw. The I-675 interchange represents just one successful effort to steer our tax dollars back to us."

 I can buy that. But I'm frustrated with the system, not the Congressman or the Chamber.

 She explains that Congressman Kildee landed an "appropriations earmark." The thought occurs to me: Hmm, an earmark. Are not these the line items that have quadrupled during the supposedly conservative Bush Administration, drawing even John McCain's stated ire? Yes indeed, and Dale Kildee is just getting Saginaw's share.

Veronica quickly takes a scrap paper and sketches a box the size of a business card. In the corner she draws a tiny square about the size of a small fingernail, representing Michigan's share of the federal largesse.

 Saginaw could return the money based on principle, she softly scolds me, but the cash would not go back to the federal treasury. It would simply mean more for Alaska, West Virginia and Massachusetts.

She continually lists this trio of states. She even mentions Alaska's "Bridge to Nowhere" before I have a chance. For readers not familiar, former Senator Ted Stevens three years ago earmarked $233 million for a bridge to an island with 50 occupants, purportedly to eliminate the need for 15-minute ferry rides. The project was killed only after public exposure.

 Veronica's point is that whopping chunks of transportation funds go to states with senior senators such as Alaska with Ted Stevens, West Virginia with Robert C. Byrd and Massachusetts with Ted Kennedy.

 Michigan also has a senior senator in Carl Levin, but his focus is more on foreign affairs and defense spending. Therefore the ball for I-675 was placed in the hands of Kildee, a Democrat, although Republican Rep. Dave Camp also helped.

 A five-year plan to upgrade the highway already is in place, so this is a "perfect time" to include the downtown ramp. Also, Veronica would not describe the $14 million as "pork" in anywhere near the pejorative sense of Alaska's Bridge to Nowhere.

Access to Saginaw's central city indeed will improve. The ramp will have an attractive look (as exit ramps go, anyway) with modern sound barriers. Several dozen people will get jobs, and Mayor Joyce Seals has acted to ensure that Saginaw residents are trained and hired.

Veronica's answers on neighborhood impact are especially impressive. The highway's original unfortunate map 40 years ago ruined a huge chunk of an established working-class minority area on the northeast side, razing 2,000 homes and businesses and churches.

       

Therefore, nearby residents are not great fans of I-675 in the first place. The plan for a new ramp has created some tender feelings, such as: "Do you have to spend $14 million, just so outsiders will no longer have to pass through our unworthy neighborhood?"

       

Veronica gives two main answers. The first is that with the existing layout, children and neighborhood motorists have been endangered by outsiders who speed off of the highway and do not realize they must stop so quickly. The second is that neighbors repeatedly were informed of plans in advance (unlike this year's scenario with the federal halfway house) and formally voted to give their go-ahead.


Competing Concerns

Actually, the existing route to from the northbound I-675 ramp to downtown is nowhere near as slummy as portrayed. The disembarking motorist onto Wadsworth near Sixth Street first encounters a one-block modern mini-mall featuring Magic Kitchen, the work of entrepreneurs Lee and Betty Williams.

Then comes the worst, fields of abandoned overgrowth along Fourth and Third streets. The view brightens once more with the revitalized Civitan Recreation Center. Around a small bend comes the historic Browne's Mortuary, established by the late and great civil rights leader Harry Browne. The motorist stops at North Washington with a side view of Word of Faith International Ministries, bedecked by the Rev. Dr. Byron C. Hayes with flags that give a United Nations feel.

And across Washington Avenue, Dr. Sam Shaheen has revived the old Wickes/Delphi Building, with the Chamber of Commerce and Saginaw Future among the tenants. Turn left at this point, motor down beneath the highway, and you're
at TheDow or the Temple Theater or Morley Plaza.

This half-mile trek from I-675 to downtown is not exactly an existing Aisle of Shame. A neat suggestion comes from radio personality Joyce Harvin, who hosts
"Community Connections" at 2 p.m. Sundays on WTLZ-FM 107. The only main blight is the overgrowth between Fifth and Third streets. Why not spend a few thousand dollars to clean it up, and keep the rest of the I-675 money for something else?

Joyce knows full well that Saginaw does not have this option. She simply suggests that if we could come up with alternative lists for how we would have spent that $14 million, maybe this could shed some light on the future process in D.C.

Certainly, Representatives Kildee and Camp would not be opposed to sharing such a list with their peers. As Veronica Horn says, the Chamber of Commerce "would agree 100 percent" with reformed federal methods for doling out the cash.

 Saginaw could become a model.

 Review Magazine is starting to compile some suggestions for I-675 ramp alternatives. These would  have to be governmental in nature.

You've seen a few of mine at the top of this article.

Yours are welcome for the September 4th edition, due by August 28.

Send them to mwtsaginaw@yahoo.com.

In capital letters please type HIGHWAY in the message field so that I do not spike them by accident. Or, you may send by mail to Review's offices at 318 South Hamilton.

Use your imagination!
We don't have to eat pork.

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