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Sarasota Thursday, Jun. 24, 2010 7 years ago

MY VIEW: Impervious to common sense

by: Rod Thomson

As the wide paver sidewalks began going in along the Fruitville Road widening project east of Interstate 75 a few weeks ago, more than a few eyebrows were raised.


In a semi-rural area of the county fronting a gas station, fruit stand and not much else?

As you might expect, the pavers are much more expensive than traditional concrete. And if you are a close observer of cultural and local government trends, you might already have figured out a good part of the explanation.

That’s right. We’re saving the environment with pavers.

Here’s the story:

Fruitville Road is being widened from just east of I-75 to Debrecen Road. The western portion from Coburn Road to Tatum Road has paver sidewalks on both sides while the eastern portion has regular concrete sidewalks.

The county designed it to be low-impact, energy efficient and green. The energy-efficient portion can come with estimated values. For instance, the stretch includes the more expensive LED street lighting, but the electricity cost is estimated to be 25% to 30% less than traditional high-pressure sodium lights.

But the low-impact and green? Well, that is somewhat amorphous. Take the sidewalks.

Concrete sidewalks would have required about one acre’s worth of pond to hold stormwater runoff. That’s because concrete is an impervious surface — rain falls on it and runs off somewhere. By county rules, that runoff must be captured. An acre in that area would cost about $60,000, according to commercial real-estate brokers.

The paver sidewalks are a pervious surface — when rains falls on them it seeps into the cracks between the pavers and into the ground and so it does not require a runoff retention pond. (Although surely some water runs off the impervious portion of the pavers themselves.)

The cost for the paver sidewalks is about $250,000 more than concrete sidewalks, according to Jim Harriott, the county’s executive director of public works. So the math shows that in an apples-to-apples math equation of capital expenses, the savings fall $190,000 short of breaking even. The pavers cost taxpayers a net $190,000.

Harriott admits that the method of using low-impact, energy-efficient, green design measures does not often save money, but adds: “There is also the savings by reducing impacts on the environment.”

The problem there is that there is no conceivable way to measure whether such feel-good green savings are worth the cost. How damaging to the environment is stormwater runoff that is held in a small pond?

Sounds minimal, if at all. I mean, just how much environmental damage does a pond cause anyway? Is avoiding an acre of stormwater pond worth the extra $190,000 that the paver sidewalks cost? And is there not a value for many types of wildlife in having the ponds — frogs, fish, birds and so on?

The answers to all of these questions are subjective, which means it is highly questionable that it should be public policy — $190,000 to avoid the enviro-degradation caused by a pond?

+ Painting a special interest
On cue, arts organizations are decrying the cuts in state funding, with supporters using words such as “stunned” and “disappointed” and “pathetic” to describe the cutbacks.

What universe do arts people live in? Put aside the legitimate question of why the broad base of general taxpayers should be funding everything from opera and symphonies to avant garde “art.” Have the art folks noticed that we are in the worse economic downturn since the Great Depression?

Are they aware that the state has been slicing billions from the budget annually for the past several years now with more cuts expected next year? Are they aware that state unemployment is hovering near 12%?

They seem to epitomize the truth that every group lining up at the public trough for handouts — and they are legion — becomes a special interest and can only see their own narrow wants. Arts funding in Florida bloated up to $32 million during the peak of the bubble in 2006, a ridiculous amount of money.

There are plenty of artistic ventures that do not get subsidized — popular movies, television shows, pop, rock, blues and so on. Government should not be deciding which forms of art get tax handouts and which do not.

The correct amount of tax funding for the arts is $0. But never more so than during severe economic times.

Rod Thomson is executive editor of the Gulf Coast Business Review. He can be reached at [email protected]" target="_blank">[email protected].

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