No More Surface Parking on Bethlehem Steel Land

You and I both know Bass Pro shops would want a humongous surface parking lot as part of any deal on the No. 2 Machine Shop. I have no idea why anyone thinks that a hunting and fishing store is a good fit for an urban core location, but if they want a surface parking lot that should be a deal-breaker. Either they build structured parking or no go.

I know some people think these parking lots can be redeveloped later, but I don’t see the evidence that the site is developing in a way that will easily facilitate urban infill construction later. It would be a tragedy if this site turned into something like the Promenade Shops. It should just be more Southside street grid, best accessible on foot or transit, with cars a lower priority mode.

The benefit of not having to “blaze a new identity for Bethlehem is that you can be picky about design stuff like that and demand concessions from developers. You don’t have to kiss their asses and sacrifice your site plans.

Now, as he prepares to be sworn in to the city’s top office Monday, Donchez is tasked not with blazing a new identity for Bethlehem, but with finding a way to keep the good things coming while dealing with a more sober fiscal reality that has shrunk city government in recent years.

“We have to maintain the momentum,” Donchez said.

His first-year agenda is packed with flashy economic development projects like courting a Bass Pro sporting goods store for the old Steel plant and, by year’s end, nuts-and-bolts labor negotiations with police and fire unions, both of which took significant retirement cuts for new employees in the current contract.

The Pro-Market Plan for Zoned Hauling in Bethlehem

A single trash hauler is the cheapest, greenest, and most efficient option for Bethlehem residents and city government without question, but Bob Donchez and Eric Evans think keeping a handful of redundant trash haulers in business is a more important priority than winning residents hundreds of dollars a year in savings from group purchasing, so it’s not on the table.

But every elected official still knows the current Wild West system is a failure, so now a “zoned hauling” plan is under discussion.

This basically means that each neighborhood would have a specific day for trash pick-up, which we really ought to consider the minimum acceptable outcome. It’s weak sauce though and city leaders can do better.

That’s why I’m proposing my own zoned hauling plan. Here’s how it works:

1. Divide Bethlehem into 4 “zones” – North, South, East, and West.

2. Put contracts out for bid on each of these zones, for 2-3 years maximum duration.

3. Allow trash hauling companies to bid on the contracts for up to 2 of the 4 zones.

4. Hold one or two public meetings in the different zones to review the bids, get public input, and get an advisory-only vote from neighbors on the plans they like best.

5. Take a Council vote to award the contracts to the highest value proposals (trading off comprehensiveness of the service package, lowest price, and meeting participant preference).

6. Do it all again in 2-3 years.

The virtues of this plan over the current system where each household chooses their own hauler are many.

For starters you actually get some meaningful competition. The problem with the current market is that there’s no way to know if you’re actually going to get better service for your money by switching haulers.

Under my plan, haulers have to compete on price and service quality with each other in a transparent way. And there’s a clear easy-to-understand process for evaluating haulers’ performance.

They have to participate in public meetings and defend their performance in front of neighbors and elected officials every few years to keep their contracts, so there’s an incentive for good behavior and great service.

You get real (albeit collective) choice in a real market. At the same time, you get the economy of scale of a single hauler, without concentrated service provider power limiting the cost savings captured by residents. There’d be real competition in each bidding period, not just a referendum on the current hauler with no meaningful alternative.

If people want a free market, Bethlehem should create a real market that is capable of doing what highly functional markets do best: shave service provider profits down close to the cost of production, for the benefit of consumers.

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