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Cheaper vs. better

Mar 23, 2012 - By Steven R. Peck

One of the age-old points of contention in Riverton has been between "doing it cheaper or better." Each side has its proponents.

A new issue being framed in those terms concerns what kind of streetlights will be installed when a portion of South Federal Boulevard is rebuilt starting next year.

At first it looked as if installing streetlights on Federal Boulevard that would match the shorter, arched, green posts downtown could cost as much as $300,000. That's a figure to make anyone balk.

Now, however, a new funding structure involving an assist at the state level could drop the city's share of the cost to about $21,000. Even the discount rate is more than some people would prefer, and there is ongoing talk about whether the more quaint light poles are necessary, or even desirable, in a part of town that has a decidedly industrial feel to it.

Similar debate has bubbled for a century. In the earliest days of Riverton, those were the terms upon which issues such as water delivery, the width of the original streets and the railroad depot were discussed.

Later, the development of city parks sparked disagreement along the same lines. School construction, in the days when there was local control, always brought the issue to light. The same concerns were evident in the two unsuccessful public votes to build a deluxe football and track venue at Riverton High School in just the past few years.

At no time in the city's history were the battle lines between cheaper and better more clear than during the decade-long disagreement in the 1940s and 1950s about whether Riverton's streets ought to be paved and if so, how well. Curbs, gutters and sidewalks were at the center of that struggle.

The question of the light poles on South Federal Boulevard doesn't rise nearly to that level of heat, but it does rekindle thoughts from the big Main Street rebuild of 2004, when there was continuing disagreement over how fancy to make the basic street and sidewalk upgrades. Median blocks, the meandering "river feature" on the colored sidewalks, and, yes, the light poles, generated considerable discord among those who planned the project and those who wanted to pay less for it. Some in Riverton still grumble about the extras that came at a higher price than the basics.

Let's proceed with the enhanced light pole design on South Federal Boulevard. The city has found a way to reduce the cost drastically, and the poles to match downtown's decor are available at a huge bargain. It's an opportunity that needn't be passed up on the basis of money, now that the pricetag is so much smaller.

As to the question of whether the nice poles are "needed," the answer, of course, is no. A cheaper, ordinary pole design would serve the purpose of lighting the street, just as a plainer, cheaper sidewalk design would have served the purpose in 2004, and just as a narrow strip of blacktop would have served the basic purpose of paving in the 1950s.

The larger question, however, is about more than simple need. Why, we might ask, would we human beings ever do anything at all beyond what is required for fundamental sustenance? Why ever buy the blue shirt when the gray will do? Why get electric car windows instead of roll-ups? Why order chocolate instead of vanilla? Why sleep in a bed instead of on the floor?

Strategic, responsible marshalling of pubic resources is another of our human capacities. We practice it well in our city, as well we ought to.

But among the many things that separate us from the other animals is our ability to create options for ourselves -- such as cheaper vs. better -- and then make choices based on the various aspects of our humanity which, fortunately for our species, needn't only or always be defined simply by bare necessity.

So let's raise up the nicer light poles. This is the only city we've got, and this is our time to do right by it. We can afford it, and we won't be sorry to have them.

And it will make Riverton a little bit better to live in. That's an option that always ought to be on the table.

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Riverton City Council