Changing the framework

vegas

My posts this quarter have all focused on Las Vegas, and specifically what I see as a failure to address the threat of climate change in both its urban design and planning frameworks. But in Chapter 2 of The Carbon Efficient City, Hurd and Hurd ask us to consider how we might change these frameworks to (1) “enable efficient economic transactions” and (2) “increase transparency about emissions.” In that spirit, I would now like to propose a useful change rather than offer up another critique. As a planner by training, I tend to consider these problems at the macro- rather than micro-scale. And in the case of Las Vegas, I would argue that the most significant shift in addressing the effects of climate change on the Vegas Valley would come from changing the framework by which the city assesses and selects infrastructure projects.

The importance of considering the economic effects of carbon output has already been established. In fact, large corporations like Coca-Cola and Nike along with international financial institutions like the World Bank are recognizing the effect that carbon-related costs can have on the balance sheets of not just private businesses but also nation states (http://nyti.ms/1l46kDL). And at the local scale, we can already get a glimpse of what those costs might look like, with water rates increasing for Las Vegas residents by more than $3 a month to pay for a $650 million pumping station made necessary by the precipitous drop in water levels at Lake Mead (http://bit.ly/1EMudHr). While this particular project is a reaction to the effects of climate change, the city must also be proactive in reducing its carbon footprint and constructing infrastructure that is more resilient to natural hazards.

How can this be done? In planning, we are taught that development often follows infrastructure. So the decisions we make about the scale and types of infrastructure that become a part of the city’s Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) are of great importance. For those who are unfamiliar, the CIP is a tool that local governments use to forecast and budget multiyear, large-scale infrastructure projects and acquisitions that are beyond the scope of the city’s operating budget. However, the city employs limited metrics in assessing proposed investments, and departmental staffs that submit those proposals rarely consider low-carbon or resilient alternatives to the conventional project type.

So what additional metrics would be useful? One option would be to consider the financial impact of natural hazards on infrastructure investments. Most cities do not consider replacement costs for infrastructure located in areas that are expected to experience natural hazards within the investment’s life cycle. Considering the effect of that hazard and the reserves that would be required to repair or replace the affected infrastructure might alter decision maker’s calculus. Cities can also use life-cycle costs, rather than capital costs, as a metric in their analysis. Life cycle costs are calculated by adding capital costs (the typical metric used by cities) to the investment’s expected operations and maintenance (O&M) costs. O & M costs will usually be higher for infrastructure that emits large amounts of carbon given the associated energy costs.

Metrics are not the only issue, though. If cities were to consider a range of alternatives for each investment type, they could select the most cost-effective project model given the long-term costs of carbon emission and climate-induced natural hazards. Given its location, Las Vegas will continue to feel the effects of climate change. But by considering these changes to its CIP process, the city could make informed decisions that reduce the costs of those changes on its residents.

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