Measure E: Just Say No to Hubris:
Palo Alto can't afford to be first-adopters of unproven technology
by Douglas B. Moran, 11 October 2011

Steve Jobs famously advised that Focus is about saying no to … other good ideas … You have to pick carefully. This is routinely ignored in the running of the city of Palo Alto: The number of areas with demands for Palo Alto to be world-class is astounding, and it is sheer hubris that many such ideas get serious consideration.

Ever wonder why Palo Alto keeps falling further and further behind on the basics, such as maintaining our infrastructure (streets, buildings…) despite focusing on reducing that backlog for over a decade? A significant part of this is our inability to say no to such extras. The problem is not just the cost, but the amount of time and energy Council and City staff divert to these extras.

The advocates of Measure E want Palo Alto to be an early adopter of new technology (Dry Anaerobic Digestion), possibly being the absolute first adopter for part of the technology. They are blasé or naïve about how expensive this can be. I would have expected that the years of admonitions not to jump into a dot-zero release of computer software would have created an appreciation that this was an even bigger problem for machinery and physical plant. You pay for a wide range of contractors—consultants, planners, construction—to learn the new technology. You pay for their mistakes. And you pay and pay for years because your equipment is less efficient and harder to maintain than if you had waited for even the next version.

I have asked various advocates about economies of scale for the technology and I have gotten no answers. They insist upon viewing it simply as a matter of the greenhouse gases (GHG) produced during transporting waste, ignoring the carbon footprint of all the other components of the system.

This is not a mistake that should be made at this stage in the Green movement: Corn-based ethanol has long been a prominent example of counter-productive results from (deliberately?) sloppy analysis. On the basis of fossil fuels alone, it was rarely better than break-even. And when the rest of its carbon footprint was added, it represented an increase in GHG.

When you talk about the cost to build and operate a facility, remember that that funding resulted from activities that generated GHG, and that costs can often be used as a first-approximate of carbon footprint.

Some of the advocates dismiss the question of whether a regional solution would be more efficient on the grounds that every city should handle its own waste, but then turn around and contradict themselves by touting as an important benefit of the facility that other cities could use it. So regionalism is important when the facility is located in Palo Alto, but to be vigorously opposed when it isn't? And trucking waste into Palo Alto is good, but trucking it out is bad?

The advocates have exaggerated the maturity of the technology: What they describe as proven should instead be described as an early full-scale trial.

I have heard the advocates offer no practical reason for Palo Alto to take the huge financial risk of being a first/early adopter. The extent of this risk is highlighted by the wide range of cost estimates produced by the consultant, and by the weak justifications for both the high and low numbers. Instead, what I hear is that Palo Alto needs to be a national leader or example.

For some, this is simply an expensive version of civic pride or bragging rights. Others dismiss the concerns about costs, benefits and even feasibility as selfishness—that Palo Altans are so rich that the extra expense doesn't matter and that Palo Alto owes it to the rest of the country to absorb those costs. These are visionaries who can't be bothered with understanding that just because Palo Alto has some very wealthy residents, that doesn't translate into the city government having an endless supply of funds.

Although technically Measure E involves only the undedication of parkland, the advocates have made it clear that they see it as creating momentum for the AD facility. It is instructive to look at an earlier fiasco backed by many of the same people. The Environmental Services Center (ESC) was to be a trash-sorting and transfer station and was also to be built in the Baylands. However, we already had such a facility, the SMaRT Station, built and operated in partnership with Mountain View and Sunnyvale and located in Sunnyvale.

To the local advocates, this was unacceptable. They wanted a facility with all the newest whiz-bang technology, and they wanted it located in Palo Alto. One of its four key attributes was that it be a lighthouse to the nation. Another was that it include a classroom and viewing stations so that students from around the Bay Area could come and learn about recycling.

Talk about hubris. Part of the maneuvering to try force Palo Alto to build the ESC was a change to how we handled recycling so that it was incompatible with the SMaRT Station. Unable to send the recyclables to Sunnyvale, the company doing the collection—Waste Management Inc—had to truck them to its facility in Oakland. And since the SMaRT Station wasn't getting its contracted volume from Palo Alto, it was operating at undercapacity and consequently Palo Alto was assessed substantial penalties. Furthermore, the change in the handling of recyclables reduced their value by increasing contamination problems and increasing the labor for sorting. The ESC was eventually killed as financially nonsensical, but only after expensive studies and a long series of Council and Commission meetings.

When venture capitalists evaluate a start-up, the team is considered to be a more important factor than the technology. In Palo Alto politics, experience indicates that citizen advocates need to be viewed as part of the team. Often they are very influential, sometimes more than staff. And sometimes for better; sometimes for worse. I find it very troubling that despite all the studies, analyses, critiques and other discussions that the Measure E advocates' proposals have not become substantially more sophisticated.

Similarly, I am deeply troubled by their treatment of the concerns raised by the supporters of the parkland: They have persistently understated the impact of the proposed facility on adjacent parkland. They have persistently and egregiously misrepresented the parkland, routinely trivializing what it is. Together, this tells me that the advocates will not consider valid criticism and alternatives, but will instead fight to have it their way. This is the recipe for another fiasco.

Vote NO on Measure E if you think that Palo Alto taxpayers and utility customers should be getting value for their money rather than subsidizing the causes and ideologies of various activists.

Originally appeared as an (online) Opinion posting at Palo Alto Patch