Magical Thinking

Friend and fellow traveler Jim Allen uses the term “magical thinking” to refer to that special brand of nonsense in which benefits come without costs, growth goes on forever, and every meal is a free lunch. I really like the term. It is a cheerful, almost whimsical way of calling out bullshit.

Two different examples of magical thinking have drawn my attention recently. Both figure prominently in Newman Development Group’s efforts to realize their big box dreams.

The first is found in their effort to measure the capacity of Route 20A. It’s an important issue. At some point, the amount of traffic on 20A will exceed the carrying capacity of the road. Signs of this are already seen in the long delays getting on to 20A and the large number of people who have simply quit using it.

Next will be the need to widen the road, a move that is tremendously expensive and nowhere to be found in DOT’s plans or budgets. Due to its likely effects on the Homestead’s stone wall and on the general character of the community, widening 20A is also a move that would greatly increase the jeopardy of Geneseo’s National Historic Landmark District status.

The Planning Board is wise to try to determine how much more traffic and how much more traffic-intensive development Geneseo can bear. The answer that Newman provides, perhaps reflecting their own considerable interest in traffic that goes on forever, reveals some magical thinking.

Determining the capacity of a road is complicated. It involves figuring out the maximum number of vehicles that can move past a certain point (an intersection with a traffic signal, in this case) in a certain time and then reducing that number by the amount of time the light is red, the width and grade of the road, the number of trucks, the characteristics of the area in which the road is located, and so on. Traffic engineers figure ideal flow is 1,900 vehicles per lane per hour.

In its calculations, Newman determined that 20A operates at approximately 97% efficiency, meaning that the actual flow during green lights will be 97% of the ideal flow. The research I did, and I readily admit I’m not a traffic engineer, indicates this is far too generous. The residential character of 20A, the volume of trucks, the grade of the road, and so on, likely diminish its actual flow to something closer than 90% of ideal flow.

This difference is enough to change the point at which 20A is maxed out from sometime in the 2020s to sometime around 2010 (depending on the assumed rate of traffic growth in the meantime). Put another way, the difference is enough to mean that 20A’s capacity is an issue now, not sometime safely in the future.

The second kind of magical thinking on my mind is found in the claims of Newman and others that retail sprawl on 20A can continue without any adverse effects on local businesses. Somehow, we are to believe, $30-$40 million (the annual receipts expected at Lowe’s) can be transferred into Lowe’s cash registers without coming out of anyone else’s cash register.

I recognize that some of this business will be returned to Geneseo from Henrietta, moving from one big box to another. I also recognize that this business will bring jobs and taxes with it. I even recognize that some of those coming to our big boxes may also stop at a local business.

However, it is magical thinking, not to mention callous, to believe there aren’t real and serious costs to this. As with traffic, these costs can already be seen in the vacant groceries and quiet Main Streets throughout the County. Whether on our Main Street, elsewhere in Geneseo, or on someone else’s Main Street, by Newman’s own estimates, at least $5-$10 million more will be lost by local businesses if Lowe’s opens.

Then there are the secondary costs. As I wrote last week, money spent locally stays in local businesses and in local hands far longer than does money spent in chains. Newman didn’t even consider these costs, though they are considerable.

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