There’s a scene in The West Wing where one of the characters proposes ending a standoff between India and Pakistan by promising India new infrastructure in exchange for backing down.  “Buy them off,” says the character, Lord Marbury.  He goes on to explain how the British Crown used to buy the loyalty of regional leaders in India by giving them money and a title.

Back in February, Josh Barro at Forbes explained how Chicago facilitates urban development in a similar way:

This is partly because Chicago also liberally uses Tax Increment Financing districts, which now cover huge swathes of the city. When a TIF district is created, the amount of property tax revenue that the district sends to the city is frozen for 23 years. Increases in property tax receipts are instead directed into a special fund that can only be used for projects within the TIF district boundaries—and new developments tend to mean significant increases in property tax collections. When you create a TIF, you create an incentive for residents and their Aldermen to approve new development, as that means more money for local goodies.

Of course, we don’t have a TIF in Washington State and Roger can give you all the reasons why.  But the idea of buying off affected communities has broader merit.  Here’s a piece from Dawn Stover at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists on how to get communities to agree to allow an energy (or waste) facility to be located nearby:

The commission studied the experience of the United States and other nations and concluded that “any attempt to force a topdown, federally mandated solution over the objections of a state or community — far from being more efficient — will take longer, cost more, and have lower odds of ultimate success.” Instead, the commission recommended that communities be encouraged to volunteer as hosts for a nuclear waste management facility and be offered substantial incentives for doing so.

Stover goes on to argue that the consent has to be truly informed – you can’t just go to the poorest communities and buy them off because they have no other alternatives or don’t know what they’re getting into.  Fortunately, as relates to transit projects, this is less of a concern.  For one, the main opposition may come from high-information, high-income residents (think of the South Bay Area and high-speed rail, or Beverly Hills High School and the LA Subway).  And, of course, the end product is an amenity, like a train station, not a nuclear waste site!

So, next time you’re faced with an recalcitrant neighborhood opposed to a new transit project or upzone, consider appointing a maharaja.  Or at least offer to build a new gym for the local school.

37 Replies to “Buy Them Off”

  1. How do you think the lid over I90 got built or the new one over 520…this happens all the time.

  2. That’s a nice theory. But where do you find the money to buy people off? Transit agencies do not have huge sums of money lying around to do this. They struggle to fund the projects they are trying to build. Legitimizing this kind of behavior is a recipe for skyrocketing budgets as more communities realize they can just hold things up in order to get more money or more stuff. (Witness the Port of Seattle and the City Council trying to shake down the guy who wants to build an arena.)

    Also, are we completely sure that opponents are simply waiting to be bought off? Most opposition to transit projects comes from deeper roots. The only way you could appease the Beverly Hills folks, for example, is to move the subway routing to somewhere else entirely. Doing so would be more costly and generate less ridership. No amount of pricey infrastructure will help. Also, most of these communities have been engaged from the start, but it’s only when a project goes from an idea to an actual plan that is going to happen that people’s attitudes shift from cautious interest to vehement opposition.

    I’d have more confidence in the theory laid out here if there were more nuclear waste sites in operation. The fact that most waste is still just sitting in Hanford is an indication that the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists article reflects hope more than experience.

    1. This is an important point:
      “Also, are we completely sure that opponents are simply waiting to be bought off? Most opposition to transit projects comes from deeper roots. The only way you could appease the Beverly Hills folks, for example, is to move the subway routing to somewhere else entirely.”

      Indeed, the Beverly Hills rail opponents are simply crazy people — as various Beverly Hills residents who aren’t crazy have noted. There is nothing to be done with them except to keep going until the subway is built and they are defeated.

      “Buy ’em off” is a fine strategy for *some* situations; it’s the basis of politics, arguably. But it doesn’t work for irrational, fanatical train-phobia, which seems to show up frequently.

      1. Example of a situation where it works: a fast intercity passenger line is needed through the “Englewood” neighborhood of Chicago. The people in the Englewood neighborhood don’t care about the intercity line, they find the construction disruptive, but they want more jobs and they want local train service.

        This is a situation where a deal can, and *should*, be cut.

  3. This is why Donald Shoup recommends directing parking meter revenues to improving the neighborhood in which they are located. This not only makes the neighborhood better, but it reduces local opposition to sensible parking pricing strategies. Neighbors hate the idea of parking revenues going into some big city government mystery fund, but they probably would support a neighborhood improvement district.

  4. Sound Transit / City of Seattle did this with the $50 million Community Fund (or whatever it was called) for Rainier Valley

  5. Read Jules Stewart’s book “Crimson Snow” on subject of bought Indian royalty. It’s like this. You get good cooperation as long as you pay what you promised. But breach of contract for budgetary reasons will cost you.

    The Afghans sent one badly cut-up British doctor back to his own lines to tell the Crown what had happened to the whole rest of the British forces. It was winter. Hence the title.

    Mark Dublin

      1. The US is basically bribing Pakistan to allow the US to run the stupid war in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Pakistan has no interest in supporting the US because the US has been a very unreliable and untrustworthy “ally”.

        So… anyway, in the world of transportation, “buy them off” works better in some situations than others.

  6. I forget. Why is it exactly that Sound Transit is the most expensive transit system in the country?

    1. Dunno, Jeff, but good chance what we did wrong was not build it in a place that was completely flat, didn’t need any floating bridges, and was so ugly that property was cheap because nobody wanted to live there.

      Also would have helped to have several hundred miles of abandoned freight spur from industries that died when the rust belt oxidized.

      Might be worth some investigation whether with real estate prices at an all-time low in places like Buffalo, it might be a good idea to move the entire Puget Sound Region to someplace it’ll be cheaper to build transit.

      Just a thought. I still miss the four seasons and the thunderstorms. The ones here are really passive-aggressive.

      Mark Dublin

      1. “Amerikanskaya Isklyuchitel’nost'” par excellence:

        “Why is it exactly that Sound Transit is the most expensive transit system in the country?”

        “jeff”‘s unstated but nonetheless inherent underlying premise: “It’s okay, informative and useful to compare “transit system” costs without reference to local geography – and without reference to traffic carried.”

        More than thirty years ago, three authors proposed a radical method of putting all transportation infrastructure on an “equal footing.” Although complex, this method is worth considering:

        Annualized capital cost per km (or mile, if you insist)

        /

        (Annual average of) weekday pass-km (or mile) carried per km (or mile) of route.

        The result would be expressed in $ per weekday pass-km.

        This methodology would work for highways as well as transit systems . . . but no one wants to use it (perhaps they’ve guessed what the results might look like).

      2. Mark, it might also have helped to build the system in the 1970s rather than waiting 20-30 years for construction to get more expensive. Ahem.

      3. “Might be worth some investigation whether with real estate prices at an all-time low in places like Buffalo, it might be a good idea to move the entire Puget Sound Region to someplace it’ll be cheaper to build transit.”

        We in upstate NY would welcome you. ;-)

  7. This is the kind of robbing Peter to pay Paul behavior that ends up with most citizens getting taken, a lot of political chicanery, over priced construction, cheesebag technology, ill situated routes, and a few bandits making off with all the loot.

  8. Having lived in Chicago, I would conclude that all that behavior is corruption producing that exacerbates inequality. If we’re looking at this, it should be under pretty tight guidelines and sunset provisions. Seattle in relative terms, has pretty good integrity of government compared to my former city. I’d like to see that preserved.

  9. I really don’t think Chicago politics or the “Great Game” should be the model for how we run things here in Seattle (which is in no way an endorsement of the Seattle Process).

    A subway station is not a nuclear waste dump. It is a valuable gift to the people living around it, for which they should be grateful.

    Transit planners should make constructing a new transit facility conditional on passing an upzone. We shouldn’t drop a few hundred mil on a neighborhood and then beg them to condescend to allow a few more buildings. Instead, we should offer our limited transit dollars to the communities who have demonstrated themselves willing to embrace the entire program.

    1. It shouldn’t be up to the communities to refuse that upzone in the first place. You don’t vote to build a new system and then strangle the same people tasked with implementing that system from doing what that system entails.

  10. I’d much rather see communities compete for a station. Once there’s already one planned, they have nothing to gain. But getting a station in the first place is like gold.

    The community that can come up with the greatest potential increase in population through zoning and land use changes gets a station. I’ll start working on Upper Queen Anne, to take a station from Interbay for the Seattle Subway. It’ll take some tall towers, but we can do it.

  11. Comparing getting communities to accept train stations with getting communities to accept nuclear waste dumps is a tortured analogy with a very short half life.

    Every community with an ounce of common sense will reject any amount of payoff to accept the nuclear waste. It is the ultimate devil’s bargain.

    But there are plenty of communities that will jump at the opportunity to get a train station. The train line, without a station, not so much. Yes, we are having to buy off a thousand neighborhoods to get the California bullet train built, but it’s not as if the train will poison the land for the next thousand generations. It’s impacts can be mitigated.

    Let us hope its electrification comes from something other than nuclear energy. Yucko!

    1. There are a lot of towns that are desperate for jobs, and I could imagine this would help – at least while it’s being filled. Poisoning the land is only an issue if they do a poor job of it – I’m quite sure they’re talking about salt mine storage meant to protect the waste on a geologic time scale. I’m all for long-term planning, but with the time value of money you could get quite a return on investment in a geologic time scale. $1 invested today at just a 1% annual interest rate would yeild $10.5 trillion in just 3,000 years, compounded monthly.

      I’d much rather see electrification come from nuclear than coal, which releases far more radioactive material into the air rather than storing it underground. Of course I’d be happy with solar or wind as well.

      Anyway, I agree it isn’t a great analogy.

      1. I’m curious, engineer, how coal burning releases radioactivity into the air.

        I still contend that building a nuke dump somewhere will be nothing but deadly to the economy (and the lifeforms) of the area stupid enough to accept it.

        It’s bad enough for the economy of places stupid enough to have built such plants.

      2. Folks have looked at what is in coal:

        http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es60152a007

        Traces of uranium and thorium go up the stack with a bevy of much more concerning pollutants. When you’re burning through some percentage of the six billion tonnes of coal consumed in a year, even trace elements will add up to a not-so-tiny amount.

      3. Here‘s a good science-based article on the subject. “coal-fired power plants throughout the world are the major sources of radioactive materials released”
        “coal combustion is more hazardous to health than nuclear power and that it adds to the background radiation burden even more than does nuclear power.”

        Nuclear power certainly has issues, but when it comes to radiating people with waste products, coal is far worse. But then, coal is an enemy to mankind for other reasons as well.

      4. Ooh, here’s a good quote from the same article:

        “Consequently, the energy content of nuclear fuel released in coal combustion is more than that of the coal consumed! Clearly, coal-fired power plants are not only generating electricity but are also releasing nuclear fuels whose commercial value for electricity production by nuclear power plants is over $7 trillion, more than the U.S. national debt. “

      5. And there is more gold dessolved in the oceans, not counting that lost due to shipwrecks, than has been mined in all of human history. Extracting it in a cost-effective fashion is the problem, as is the case with all that valuable uranium in the coal.

      6. So, we just need to have “Clean Coal” technology, just like clean nuke dump technology will stop the irradiated wastewater seepage. (sarcasm alert)

        The Goddess gave us an endless supply of wind and solar energy. What’s been the hold-up in harnessing it? If we are going to buy anyone off, pay rural communities to put up with the “eyesore” of wind farms.

      7. The only hold-up is correctly pricing externalities – that goes for coal, nukes, and even natural gas.

      8. Brent says:
        The Goddess gave us an endless supply of wind and solar energy. What’s been the hold-up in harnessing it? If we are going to buy anyone off, pay rural communities to put up with the “eyesore” of wind farms.

        Matt the Engineer says:
        The only hold-up is correctly pricing externalities – that goes for coal, nukes, and even natural gas.

        I say:
        Thank you for both pointing out key points. I would add that there is also a hold-up due to the *incumbent industry companies* — oil/coal/gas/nukes — spending lobbying money to *prevent* us from correctly pricing externalities. The solar and wind industries are not yet powerful enough to outweigh the incumbent industries politically.

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