Sunday, November 1, 2015

Stretching the Truth

This post is Part 1 in a new 7-ish part series I'm going to call "The Emperor Has No Clothes: How One Little Document Can Illustrate All That's Wrong With the Way We've Been Doing Things Since the Middle of the Last Century...And Other Stuff."

At least that's the working title. Don't hold me to it.

As I mentioned earlier, AHTD's request for $200 million from the feds for the probably unconstitutional 30 Crossing appears to have been rejected. However, the application they submitted asking for that money is the best distillation of AHTD's vision for the project that I've found so far, so you'll probably see future references to it on this here blog. One realization I had after just a cursory glance was that the document contains a ton of...hmmm...shall we say... exaggerations?

Hopefully we can assume that the department put its best foot forward when asking, hat in hand, for $200 million toward a $650 million project and didn't just make some simple typographical mistakes. We're probably also safe in assuming it's customary to see a certain amount of puffery in these applications. Imagine a used car salesperson telling you that a '94 Accord on the lot is 'as good as new.' You know what he's doing, and he knows you know what he's doing, and you know he knows you know what he's doing, ad infinitum.

Face it though, you're not really going to be surprised if you find an Alanis Morissette tape in the cassette player of that 'good as new' 1994 Accord. It's just part of the negotiation dance designed to get to an agreement on price later. So long as both sides are aware of what's going on, and so long as everyone else is doing it, stretching the truth a little or accentuating the positives while ignoring the negatives could be acceptable. If that's the case with federal transportation grant applications then fine, maybe we can let some exaggeration from AHTD slide in that context. Maybe.

Puffery: sometimes it's ok
However, under no circumstances should the type of truth stretching, factual misrepresentations, and error-filled logical gymnastics found in AHTD's Tiger grant application be used to sell the idea to us, the taxpayers and residents who will ultimately pay for this project in more ways than one. I've heard that some folks think all that's really needed to move things along is some better marketing from the Department's side. If better marketing means pushing what's already been said but just through a bigger loudspeaker, then... ummm... nope. Sorry. Try again. The whole justification for highway expansion is based on bad math, misinformation, illogical reasoning, and bad data. No amount of marketing is going to change that.

So what the heck am I rambling on about? Ok, let's get to example #1. It's simply a table with some very specifically incorrect information in it. (Don't worry, later posts will look at more serious, bigger picture stuff). I'm starting here though because the mistakes/misinformation/purposefully-misleading-data are just so freakin' blatant and unnecessary.

This doubly titled table came directly out of the document that the largest agency in Arkansas state government produced and sent to the U.S. Department of Transportation asking for TWO HUNDRED MILLION DOLLARS to add to the $400+ million they're getting from state tax money. It's just plain wrong in a couple of ways, and it's misleading in a big way too. The application writers placed this table at the end of a section discussing commuting patterns. The intent seems to have been to say that lots of people drive on I-30, lots of people work at these places, many of these places are close to I-30, therefore give us a bunch of money to expand I-30.

First, look at line 2 in the table. The City of Little Rock has 28,800 employees?! Seriously? I call b.s. Sure enough, Wikipedia and both say there are around 2500, an order of magnitude below AHTD's claim. It doesn't appear to be an error in just typing one too many zeroes either, so where could the error have come from? Well, a quick search of the ol' interwebs turns up a similar table on the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce's site:

It has the same number on line 2, but instead of 'City of Little Rock' the Chamber lists 'Local Government - within the MSA' as employing nearly 30,000 people. In case you're not someone who discusses arbitrary Census Bureau boundaries around the dinner table, the Central Arkansas MSA (metropolitan statistical area) is the conglomeration of everything inside Faulkner, Grant, Lonoke, Perry, Pulaski, and Saline counties. So, all the cities combined in those six counties employ 28,800-ish people, not just Little Rock. Strike one for AHTD.

Second, see those asterisks in the first table above? AHTD told the feds that those 'businesses' are located within three miles of the project area, i.e. within three miles of this green squiggly line, roughly corresponding to I-30 from Fourche Creek, to I-40, to 67/167:
The red blobs are 'Concentrated Employment Areas'.
They're cut off to better focus on that green squiggly thingy.
The Little Rock Air Force Base is most definitely not within 3 miles of that green squiggly line. The closest crow-flight distance my limited mapping skills could come up with was 7 or 8 miles. It's also a bit of a stretch to say UAMS and Centerpoint are within 3 miles of I-30. Let's call it strike two for AHTD.

[edit: Ah-ha! Their claim that the LRAFB is within 3 miles of I-30 has been gnawing at me because it's just so plainly wrong. Maybe AHTD thinks the Little Rock Air Force Base is in that big red blob they called "Airport Area" instead of at its actual location in Jacksonville? If that's the case then their credibility just took another hit.]

And now for the simply misleading part. Back to those asterisks... Just because an entity appears on one line doesn't mean all of its employees work at the same location. The State of Arkansas, the U.S. Government, Baptist Health, Acxiom, LRSD, Entergy, AT&T, St. Vincent Health, and Verizon all have some sort of presence within 3 miles of the 30 Crossing project, but by no means do all of their employees in the entire MSA work at those locations. In a few of those cases the entities just have small, satellite operations in the area. The headquarters or the largest employment locations are well outside. Strike three for AHTD.

Recap: The Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department plans to widen a six-lane interstate that already divides neighborhoods in and around downtowns Little Rock and North Little Rock to ten lanes. They applied for a federal grant to take $200 million of the nation's tax dollars and direct it toward the $650 million total project cost. That application contained a table that grossly misrepresented how many employees from the region's largest employers work near the project corridor. Maybe that's minor. I don't know. What I do know is that it's part of a larger pattern of bad arguments being made to justify doubling down on a failed 1950s-era experiment.

Coming up, tentatively, in the "The Emperor Has No Clothes: How One Little Document Can Illustrate All That's Wrong With the Way We've Been Doing Things Since the Middle of the Last Century...And Other Stuff" series...

Part 2: Cost-Benefit Analyze This!,
Part 3: Functional Deficiencies Are All In Your Head,
Part 4: Ha! Who Would Take Congestion Advice from an Aggie?,
Part 5: Traffic Models May Look Good on Paper But They're Really Shallow and Kind of Ugly in Real Life,
Part 6: Other Odds and Ends from Tiger-GrantLand, and
Part 7: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: Take the Blinders Off and Look Around Already

Again, all working titles. Don't hold me to them.

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