Penny Wise, Pound Foolish

Recently, a lunchtime discussion turned to the extent to which Indiana lags in mass transit. Wouldn’t it be great, someone said, if we had high-speed rail to Chicago?

That question recalled one of our state’s multiple “missed opportunities.” I’m told that when I65 was being built, the question arose whether overpasses should be built with a single support pillar, or with two. Two supports would make it far cheaper and easier to lay track for a train at a later time; there would be no need for added land acquisition, and the train could be run between the two pillars.

Anyone who has driven to Chicago knows that immediate gratification—in the form of lower front-end costs—won out. Now, in order to use the right-of-way, we would have to replace all the existing single supports with doubles, at far greater cost than would have been incurred by doing two pillars at the time.

Penny wise, pound foolish.

On November 4th, Indianapolis voters living within the IPS boundaries will face a similar choice, in the form of a vote on the bond issue for the third phase of IPS building renovations. (The need for the bonds is yet another example of our “penny-wise” politics; had improvements been made in a timely fashion, rather than constantly postponed, the upgrades would have been far less expensive.) These bonds will improve learning environments at 32 schools, housing 15,000 children.

The timing is hardly auspicious—but of course, it seldom is. In recognition of the economic climate, IPS has dramatically reduced the scope of work to include improvements needed for health, safety and academic achievement. The original cost estimate was 475 million; that has been reduced to 278 million. And IPS points out that payment on the bonds will not kick in until 2010—after property tax controls have taken effect. Thus, even with the increase from Phase 3, property taxes will be lower than they currently are.

Proponents of a “yes” vote make a number of arguments: every year of delay increases the cost of needed renovations by between 16-20 million dollars; 25,000 IPS children and teachers are working in aging and inadequate buildings; even after the contemplated improvements are made, IPS buildings will not be comparable to suburban ones. There are no fancy athletic facilities, computers, or other “frills” in this budget—only basic needs.

The question we will answer on November 4th is really more basic than whether we will vote to give our children an adequate learning environment, important as that is. It is whether—for once!—we will choose our long-term best interests over short-term gratification. We know that failing to invest in children today will cost us all much more in the long run. An educated workforce attracts the employers who provide jobs and pay taxes. Educated citizens are less likely to need welfare services, or engage in crime. Investing now will save dollars later.

Can we be “pound wise” for once? We’ll see on November 4th.