Monday, February 06, 2017


When the Process Determines the Outcome

Every so often, a great metaphor comes along and commands that you use it.

And so I’m writing about Breezewood, PA.

According to an uncommonly good New York Times piece, Breezewood, PA has managed over the years to maintain its position as the unlikely connector between two major highways.  If you’re trying to get from I-70 onto the Pennsylvania Turnpike -- as many do -- you have to pass through the traffic lights and restaurants of Breezewood.  

Apparently, it’s a traffic nightmare.  It’s well-known among long distance truckers as a time suck.  Regular travelers have some choice words for it.  Yet it endures.  Why?

Because it provides jobs in an otherwise struggling area, and the decision-making process in Pennsylvania for major road projects is basically inductive, starting at the most local level and working its way up.  Therefore, the only people with the jurisdiction to raise the issue of Breezewood are the folks who have it in their district.  And they’re not going to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.  The folks who work at the roadside stands get votes.  Travelers don’t get votes.  The last time it came up, the solution repave the roads through Breezewood.

This is why it endures.  A few people to whom it means a lot own the process.  Everyone else -- a far greater number -- to whom it’s a maddening and arbitrary delay doesn’t get a vote.

I suspect that as long as the process stays the way it is, Breezewood will continue to thrive.  

In administration, there’s any number of Breezewoods.  They’re initially unintended consequences of other policies, but over time, they take on lives (and constituencies) of their own.  Well-meaning people come along and see the problem, but find themselves unable to make meaningful changes because the process is designed to get the results it gets.  What should be a simple enough fix doesn’t get made because doing it would require the political equivalent of major surgery.  Drivers can gripe, but as long as they don’t vote accordingly, angry drivers have a lower political cost than angry locals.

I’ve seen a variation on Breezewood in the way that many colleges do strategic planning.  Rather than starting with a strategy and then planning implementation, they start with a bottom-up process designed to include everyone.  Naturally, everyone opens with “my area needs more.”  When the input is aggregated, every area needs more.  But budgetary reality sets in, most can’t get what they wanted, and folks walk away convinced that the process was a sham.  It may not have been consciously intended to be a sham, but it worked as if it had been.  What looks like deference or humility from central administration -- we won’t set a theme -- winds up becoming centrally driven by default.  If all those inputs cancel each other out, and resources are limited, well, someone has to balance the books.

If you don’t consciously set a direction, you default to the direction your structure dictates.  And every structure dictates them.  

That’s not an argument for abandoning structures, but it is an argument for changing them from time to time.  Any given arrangement tends to pull in one direction or another.  That’s especially true when the arrangements are old enough that people start to behave as if the gaps make sense, and they start forming expectations around them.

For example, and borrowing from previous colleges, I’ve started requiring program reviews here to engage external consultants relevant to their field.  For vocational programs, that means a local employer; for a transfer program, that means someone in their discipline at a nearby four-year school.  The idea is to get away from the echo chamber effect that can happen -- despite good intentions -- when reviews are based on the structure they’re reviewing.  Sometimes you need fresh eyes.  Over time, I’m hoping to get different reviewers for each cycle to maintain that reality check.  Without it, too many reviews fall back on “our area needs more,” without ever questioning whether what they’re doing makes sense.  

Wise and worldly readers, I’m sure there are more Breezewoods out there.  What’s yours?

The Breezewood thing is a classic. (And of course, as an economist I have to bring up Bernard de Mandeville (author of The Fable of the Bees and other light masterpieces), who noted that the citizens of Lyons wished for the railroad from Marseilles to Paris to interrupted at Lyon, so as to benefit the hoteliers and restaurants of Lyon. As he said, why not a railroad of successive gaps, so as to benefit all the towns between Marseilles and Paris?)

Breezewood is a canonical illustration of the way Good Intentions don't necessarily lead to Good Outcomes. We have the situation there because of an old rule providing for "free" use of the new Interstate Highways, thus Interstate 70 cannot connect directly to the Turnpike. The rule apparently lives on, I once was bound from Williamsburg to Altoona which involved getting on the Turnpike and then getting off at the next exit, an Interstate spur into Altoona. No toll. (And now, with open road tolling, there's no toll taken on the west side of Pennsylvania going west from Interstate 79 near the Ohio line.)

Elsewhere in the country, there used to be incomplete sections of the Interstate that I suspect existed in order to route through traffic past service stations and souvenir stands of various kinds operated by Locally Influential People.

Perhaps, though, to riff off of Don Coffin's point, the operators of Breezewood's service stations and eateries might bid for contracts to operate additional service plazas along the Turnpike or I-70. That's what Fred Harvey did in the western states. First he set up the eateries in stations along the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe, then, when the railroads figured out how to run dining cars, he bid in on a contract to cater Santa Fe's dining cars.

There's one other oddity at Breezewood, the abandoned section of the Turnpike. The new alignment bypasses several tunnels and one westbound service plaza on the old alignment, part of which is visible on the aerial photograph.
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