What is the federal role?


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Last week I spoke at Cook County Active Living Summit in Grand Marais, MN. Grand Marais is in Minnesota's 8th Congressional District, which was represented for nearly four decades by James Oberstar, transportation advocate and powerful member/chair of the House Transportation Committee. 

Representative Oberstar was there to talk about federal initiatives for biking and walking. He talked extensively about the Safe Routes to School program, Federal spending on trails and "alternative" transportation and the need to support the active living agenda. His remarks were well received; the crowd gave him a standing ovation.

While listening to him talk, I made the following comment on Facebook:

Listening to former Congressman Jim Oberstar talking about active living, biking and the safe routes to schools program. I believe that...he has good intentions. 

After a discussion among my friends, where quite a number of them picked up on my cynicism, one of them put forth this question:

What changes would you make to the federal transportation bill?

This is a very fair question and I especially like it because it gets beyond the role that this one individual has had in perpetuating the auto-oriented devolution of our cities, promoting the interests of the highway lobby and genuflecting towards the "active living" crowd with a "we'll do that too" approach embodied in a generation that believed we should be able to have everything.

I think Representative Oberstar is a good man who has represented his district in good conscience and fealty. I'm sure he believes -- as the vast majority of Americans do -- that spending on transportation and infrastructure creates growth and prosperity. I'm not sure if 30 years from now we will look back on all of the four lane divided highways in the middle of nowhere, sewer and water systems and industrial parks he got the funding for and, as they crumble and are slowly abandoned, lament the colossal squandering of resources or pine for the glory days. The America of 2042 will not contain most of those in the room listening to the Representative last week, so it is hard to tell.

Regardless, between now and then we will put together many federal transportation budgets and have, to one extent or another, many discussions on what the role of the Federal Government should be in the realm of transportation.

Let's start by pointing out what both parties agree on: appropriating money for highways, bridges, tunnels, local highways and auto-oriented transportation projects of all kinds is of critical importance. It is a very high priority, particularly new facilities. While there is a one-way (emanating from Washington D.C.) tacit understanding that maintenance costs are a local concern, nearly every elected official seems to agree that there is value in new highways. 

There is good reason for this. New facilities do generate growth, albeit in the short term, with far greater long term liabilities. When that new overpass is constructed, the new strip mall, big box store and residential subdivision that are built all generate growth, something that shows up in an increase in GDP. When current increases in the Gross Domestic Product and current unemployment are your metrics for success, the fact that the "new growth" does not generate anywhere near enough wealth for states and local governments to justify spending money to maintain the overpass is immaterial. It is not that the feds don't care; nobody even bothers to ask the question.

Our Federal Government is much like the company that boosts share prices in the current quarter so that the CEO can retire, cash out his stock options and take some cushy spot on a board of directors, only to have the entire thing explode in the next quarter. Did the CEO know the thing was going down? Maybe or maybe not, but it is far more likely that he was so focused on the current quarter that he didn't even bother to contemplate it.

So the federal transportation bill is going to be filled to the brim with new highway projects, spending that will juice near term growth while making our states and cities insolvent over the long run (and creating a myriad of other social, environment and political problems in the process). And we want a federal transportation bill because.....?

Let me point out one other thing about federal spending: it comes with some pretty bizarre strings, especially when it gets down to the local level. I've written extensively on how, due to federal money and all of the accompanying incentives/standards, my hometown just finished The Last Great Old Economy Project, a $9 million mile of STROAD. The STROAD design was a requirement of the State Aid standards, the mechanism whereby the federal funds are dispersed. The alternative project -- a locally-funded and far more neighborhood-friendly street costing $1.2 million -- was rejected because it actually cost the local taxpayer more (in terms of cash today, that is -- nobody ever discussed future maintenance).

So, all things being equal, I would rather not have a federal transportation bill. Ask yourself why we have one in the first place. It is pure momentum from the early highway days. Our bureaucrats sat down in the 1930's and, similar to Soviet central plans of the same era, designed a national highway system. That this system has been built, expanded, and expanded yet further beyond anything ever imagined (or anything with a financial return) is instructive. We have a transportation bill this year because we had one last year, not because we are worried that Iowa and Minnesota will fail to agree on where Intersate 35 crosses their border.

As a slight aside, this observation goes to a convergence of the arguments of both Karl Marx and Friedrich Hayek. While Marx advocated socialism and Hayek individual liberty, both saw that a capitalist state controlling the means of production would advance the interests of the corporation over the interests of the worker/individual. These observations were also made by the likes of Jane Jacobs (Cities and the Wealth of Nations, in particular) and Ayn Rand, two whose philosophies are not often joined. We live in interesting times.

So if you forced me to have a federal transportation bill, then I would want it to do two things. First, I would want it to place a moratorium on the expansion, extension or construction of any new auto-oriented facilities. No new road miles anywhere. There is no need for this country to ever build another mile, another lane, another overpass or anything -- we have far more than we can take care of now, most of it very unproductive. I would make this exception, however: any state that wants a new mile of highway has to remove two miles of existing. This would allow flexibility for states that wanted a strategic contraction, allowing them to allocate scarce resources to areas that would have the greatest benefit. In short, I would ensure the bill funded maintenance (which would make it politically irrelevant in the current context, but that is beside the point). 

The second thing I would do then would be to work on the one interstate concern that currently exists, that being the resurrection of the country's railroad network. While I would certainly focus on making passenger rail possible (my six hour delay on the Empire Builder this past August was an embarrassment for a supposed "great" economy, made more so by the fact that my experience was the norm), I would also have as my goal a 50% reduction in over the road truck hauling by 2022. Tractor trailers are awesome for the first and last leg of each journey. Hauling my Fruit Loops coast to coast in the back of a semi is only made economically possible by a bizarre connection of expensive subsidies that, ultimately, provide us no great benefit. 

But what about high speed rail? What about Safe Routes to School? What about local Smart Growth Initiatives?

To those asking these questions, I ask one specific question: What is success for you? 

This past year, success has been holding on to the 1.5% of the transportation bill that goes to walking/biking. Would that make "wildly successful" something like a doubling of that to 3%. Rail advocates fight for the $1 billion annual allocation to high speed rail (the stimulus had more, but the regular transportation bill has roughly $1 billion annually). After 68 years, California could build their one project. Double the federal appropriation (as if it all went to California -- it doesn't) and we could cut that to 34 years. Is this success?

In other words, "success" -- even "wild success" -- at the federal level for non-automobile appropriations is so pathetic that it is not worth the effort. This is especially true when one realizes that every $1.50 allocated to a bike trail has to overcome the negative impacts of $95 in auto spending. Table scraps worth of money for trails to be built along the sides of STROADS is still going backwards.

As I listened to Representative Oberstar, I wondered if it occurred to him that, before we spent hundreds of billions on highways and STROADS, we used to have safe routes to school. Heck, before we had government policies that encouraged the closing of neighborhood schools and the opening of campuses on the periphery, we used to have schools in areas where we could actually walk to them. 

I wonder if he understands that, before we had a federal transportation bill, cities of all sizes had ubiquitous local transit within their walkable communities. Even my home town of Brainerd (population 12,000 in 1950) had a trolley line. We used to have passenger rail service too, back before the federal government decided to help us out.

The standing ovation for Representative Oberstar seemed more than a little misplaced to me. I can appreciate the fact that he is a good man who has worked hard doing what he thought was best for his district. For advocates of walking, biking and more local transportation options, however, I don't see an end game in the current paradigm that gets them where they want to go. I don't see how an exchange of $95 in highways and STROADS for every $1.5 in trails takes us anywhere but backwards, while we hasten the rate at which America goes broke.

The answer is not federal, but local. Federal transportation spending could potentially someday support a productive place, but it can't be a proxy for one. The pendulum has swung too far for too long in one direction. It is time to start healing our cities, towns and neighborhoods. We need to start building Strong Towns.

Note: I'll repeat that Strong Towns is a non-partisan organization. For myself, I have met political people of all persuasions that would wholeheartedly agree with this analysis. I have met political people of all persuasions that would vehemently disagree. I don't put this out there to advance any political agenda but to further a conversation on what it is going to take to build Strong Towns.

 

If you would like more from Chuck Marohn, check out his new book, Thoughts on Building Strong Towns (Volume 1)

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