Procrastination, expedience and piecemeal-ism don’t lead to building a great city


Fixing track (Roger K. Lewis/Roger K. Lewis)
July 27, 2012

Procrastination, expedience and “piecemeal-ism” — PEP for short — are among the greatest enemies of effective comprehensive planning, rational urban growth and sound infrastructure development. Without adequately understanding and anticipating future effects, costs and consequences, PEP can torpedo the best intentions of long-range plans, projects and programs.

Washington’s Metrorail system is the poster child for PEP victimization. This partly reflects how the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority was constituted. WMATA is governed and funded by the congressionally influenced District, two politically disparate states — Maryland and Virginia — and several counties and municipalities within the two states. Fragmented governance has guaranteed a recurring PEP approach to funding, constructing and maintaining Metro.

The PEP approach is typically the easiest, quickest, least risky and, in the short term, most-economical way to address pressing problems of the moment. Also PEP is often the only politically and financially viable approach. But by focusing ad hoc on building or fixing only one small piece of a larger, more complex system — by oiling only the squeaky wheel — the future quality, performance and benefits of the system as a whole may be seriously compromised.

PEP characterizes much of how we finance, build and operate America’s public infrastructure: roads and bridges, railways, utilities, parks and schools.

Nothing exemplifies PEP more than deferred road maintenance. Paved streets, long in need of repaving, are instead patched pothole by pothole, or they are repaved only a few blocks at a time or not at all. The physically worst, most-unsafe conditions should receive highest remediation priority, yet remediation so often seems to be undertaken randomly, if at all.

Who knows why one stretch of road gets a makeover while others don’t? And does it make sense to widen or add more lanes to some roads when existing lanes on many other roads are in poor condition? If there is a logical, overall roadway system remediation master plan, it remains a mystery.

Railway “Band-Aids” are constantly being applied to keep the nation’s rail lines functional. Passengers must wonder how often the bumpy railroad gets fixed between Washington, New York and Boston, an Amtrak line for which a new rail bed is clearly needed. Investment in innovative rail technologies may never occur because so much money is instead spent annually making piecemeal repairs to aging railway sections.

This piecemeal approach, long the modus operandi of WMATA, is hampering Metro.

Start with the politically expedient, short-sighted decision decades ago not to include Georgetown in laying out the Metro network. This was followed by years of deferred maintenance, during which, because of funding limitations, only the squeakiest wheels, quite literally, were oiled. The result is painfully evident: scores of escalators and elevators out of service; poor, uneven station lighting due to burnt-out light fixtures; railcars in need of refurbishing or replacement; and incessant track repairs generating chronic service disruptions.

Metro’s Silver Line extension to Dulles International Airport and Loudoun County, deferred for years, is, at last, being built. But it too has been planned and financed piecemeal. Elevating the line overhead through Tysons Corner, rather than running it in a tunnel, was clearly a decision based on expedience rather than sound urban planning. Because of doubts and hesitation on the part of Loudoun County political leaders and voters, the PEP approach is jeopardizing extension of the line to serve the eastern part of the county.

The funding strategy for the Silver Line, while politically expedient, is emblematic of the flaws in the region’s approach to transit. An integral part of WMATA’s metropolitan rail network, the Silver Line is a regional asset and amenity for greater Washington that should have been financed regionally. Yet residents of Maryland and the District aren’t directly contributing to the funding. Is this line just for Virginians?

Local governments are especially prone to committing PEP acts. Public officials are regularly asked to approve a variance, exception or zoning change to benefit a specific property. Many county and municipal authorities rigorously analyze and act on such requests in light of policies embodied in master plans and land-use regulations. Their goal is to ensure that any change is in sync with and does not compromise or violate such policies and plans.

But members of city and county councils, boards and commissions sometimes ignore public policies and plans. Questionable motivations and bad judgment can result in decisions based on piecemeal rather than holistic reasoning. This can set unwanted precedents and lead to development that doesn’t fit, undercuts well-established policies and plans and, worse, spoils subsequent development.

Can PEP behavior be avoided, given human nature?

Undertaking work in phases and doing work incrementally is often unavoidable and desirable. But work must be timely. And each phase and increment of work must contribute constructively to creating, improving and sustaining the greater whole, whether a building, a neighborhood, a transportation network, a utility system or an entire city.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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