Played for Chumps: The Waste and the Trap that Is MAPS 4

Oct 30, 2019 | Blog | 0 comments

If you own a business and an employee constantly shows incompetence, are you likely to give that incompetent a raise, or promote him to a management position? Obviously, there’s no way. Yet, this is what Oklahoma City’s residents are being asked to do, by passing a 1-cent sales tax for a fourth round of Metropolitan Area Projects (MAPS). These are projects that have a history of being seen, but not really making much of a positive difference in most Oklahoma City residents’ lives. Oklahoma City’s voters should politely decline the “opportunity.”

Oklahoma City’s government often demonstrates incompetence in providing basic city services. Take traffic management, for example. There was a period of time when my own commute on Northwest Expressway was interrupted repeatedly – three times in one week at one point – by malfunctioning traffic lights. The flashing lights turned a controlled intersection into a 4-way stop and traffic on the Expressway backed up for almost a mile, unexpectedly adding to commute times. Not once did I see a police officer direct traffic at one of these malfunctions. I’ve lived in two other large cities in my life and I guarantee there would have been officers directing traffic in both of them. Here, the city has the money to hire officers (I was told on calling to complain), but can’t seem to get enough trained up, so directing traffic is seen as too low a priority given the lack of personnel.

Another problem is the freight train through downtown. Trains stop on the tracks for minutes at a time. This is not going to end any time soon, given the railroad’s rights that predate statehood, even with efforts by the legislature to fix the problem. Yet, the only two underpasses in reasonable proximity to downtown are at 23rd Street and 5th Street (the 6th Street underpass being an underpass to nowhere), two streets with a mile and a half of dense traffic between them. This, and the traffic light problem are basic city services, not bells and whistles, whose solutions, with some basic competence, should be easily funded by the city from existing revenue. Yet, even as these problems persist, Oklahoma City’s administration wants to keep taxes high for needless luxuries.

Thus, Oklahoma City’s residents are being asked to vote, on December 10th this year, to approve yet another MAPS sales tax. But why should Oklahoma City’s government be entrusted again with dedicated revenue supposedly to make everybody’s lives better when there much evidence that earlier MAPS efforts have only benefitted a privileged few?

Don’t get me wrong. Obviously, MAPS has made a difference in the appearance of downtown OKC. It looks better than it once did, and there are things to see and do in the downtown area that were not available before, like the Bricktown Canal. But what have the new entertainment venues from the first MAPS truly done to make a difference in the lives of the overwhelming majority Oklahoma City residents? Frankly, not much. Hosted events aren’t cheap. And it’s not as if they’re all that easy for most residents to get to, either. Sure, those who can afford Thunder tickets benefit some, and so do others who are willing to shell out the bucks for special events. But shouldn’t they be the ones funding the arena? Why should everybody else subsidize basketball tickets for the rich?

And by the way, whatever happened to the trolley replica buses from the first MAPS? They were such a waste of money that they’re gone. That worked out so well that big-spending MAPS advocates decided to waste some real money on a for-real rail trolley with MAPS 3.

Next came MAPS for Kids. A bunch of money was spent on school buildings and school technology. Pardon me, but I’m not seeing any indication that education in OKC has improved, certainly not in the long term. The OKC school district is considered a bottom-feeder among the state’s schools, so much so that it’s losing students, and newcomers to the state are quickly warned not to live within the borders of OKCPS if they value their kids’ educations. Pause and think about that sad fact. OKCPS’s latest accomplishment has been to render its flagship magnet school, Classen School of Advanced Studies, a mere shadow of its former self as the district has reorganized and shut down many of the campuses MAPS for Kids paid to renovate.

Then there’s MAPS 3. I arrived in the Oklahoma City area just in time to see one downtown intersection after another dug up to have a decorative concrete bullseye motif (as seen from the air) installed, made out of red-stained concrete and textured like cobblestone. (I guess it’s a good sign that our nation is so at peace that OKC is comfortable placing bullseyes around the city.) Then, within a year the bullseyes were demolished to install rail-riding street cars – trolleys. That project caused businesses to suffer, and the modern trolley does nothing to relieve traffic congestion; it’s just a little-used novelty attraction. What’s worse, every city in the nation that has installed “light rail” has done it partly with federal money. But not OKC. The City apparently wanted to fully own that boondoggle! And by the way, I’m really not sure why Oklahoma City is training people to shoot rapids on the MAPS 3-funded artificial Riversport Rapid in the Boathouse District. There are no natural rapids to speak of in Oklahoma, so OKC is training white water rafters to spend their money shooting the rapids in Colorado.

And now, MAPS 4 — or “you, too, can be a social justice warrior.” It’s like a hodgepodge of projects the city threw together just so they could spend all the money. MAPS 4 demonstrates how all this MAPS stuff is perpetual. It will never end. One MAPS 4 project after another includes money for “operations,” “maintenance,” and “capital improvement.” These are all categories of spending that are ongoing, not one-time “investments.” So what happens when MAPS 4 expires? Where does the money for ongoing expenses to maintain the investments come from then? Another example is the $115 million partly for “capital maintenance” at Chesapeake Arena. The arena was paid for by the first MAPS, but clearly the city hasn’t the money to keep up with maintenance unless there is a MAPS 5, a MAPS 6, and on and on to what, MAPS Infinity?

I suppose one saving grace of MAPS 4 is that several of the facilities it funds will be run by someone other than the city. Of course, one wonders just how that will work out contractually, and whether the city is or is not on the hook to maintain the facilities with future MAPS monies.

Some of the projects seem like good ideas, but for those of us who spend most of their sales taxed money in Oklahoma City, but have no say in its policies, I wonder if the MAPS tax could at least be pared back to fund what is truly necessary. Maybe, say, a quarter cent or less, instead of the current penny? After all, Oklahoma already has the sixth-highest sales tax in the nation, higher than Texas, which has no income tax and an overall lower tax burden, by the most straightforward measure. This begs the question of why Oklahoma City can’t maintain and invest in transportation infrastructure and policing without some of sort of special pot of tax money to spend on top of what the city already has.

Oklahoma City’s residents seem to be pretty satisfied with their governance. But then, there is little objective information in Oklahoma for making comparisons to other places, what with our rah-rah press corps hearing and seeing so little evil. And on December 10, when a tiny fraction of Oklahoma City’s voters show up, I suspect the odds are good that the fraction of that tiny fraction in favor of MAPS 4 will be over 50 percent. But, that doesn’t make a December 10 election, clearly engineered to minimize the number of votes in opposition, any more legitimate, does it?

Byron Schlomach is 1889 Institute Director and can be contacted at bschlomach@1889institute.org.