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Wednesday
Mar262014

Day 6: A World Class Transportation System

A World Class Transportation System

Today I'm finalizing the list of Winners and Losers...

Environmentalists (WINNERS): While I’m not going to claim to understand the entire environmental movement or the motivations of each complex part, in general my proposal will result in fewer automobile miles traveled, less intrusion on habitat in order to build automobile infrastructure and ultimately a reclamation of some places already impaired. On the flip side, it will also result in an intensification of the land use pattern, an essential (and inevitable) outcome but one which many environmentalists fight against on the ground. People like Kaid Benfield have given me faith that environmentalists can be more than NIMBY’s and so I am optimistic that most would see the merits in what I’ve proposed.

Urban Dwellers (WINNERS): Clearly, ending a system that takes wealth from financially productive urban areas and transfers it (in the name of “economic growth”) to financially unproductive areas in the suburbs and exurbs will help urban dwellers. And while some urban areas will use their money for parking lots, stroads and traffic signals because they don’t understand how wealth is created (Kansas City), I doubt it will take long for those that haven’t yet figured it out to fully understand that catering to commuters is not the path to prosperity. My proposal creates instant, albeit incremental, opportunities for urban improvement that should accelerate over time.

Suburban Dwellers (MIXED): I’m going to lump suburban dwellers into two categories (probably unfair): those who choose the suburbs as a lifestyle preference and those who “drive until they quality” and have chosen the suburbs purely for perceived affordability. For the former, assuming they have the wealth to live in other places but choose the suburbs, their quality of life would improve. Congestion pricing may bring more costs but it will also bring consistently shorter commutes and predictable investments in transportation infrastructure. Suburban cities would have more tools to meet financial challenges and improve the quality of life for residents. Without the current collection of subsidies, they will have to pay for more of what they want, but that is the kind of government many theoretically envision anyway. Many will likely do a good job.

For the latter – the drive until you qualify – well, their outlook is not likely to be that optimistic. While trading the cost of a car and gasoline for lower housing costs has some logic (even many urban neighborhoods in the U.S. require a family to own two cars to thrive), when the cost of commuting goes up, that is going to hurt. Not only will housing prices continue to drop in response – likely by huge amounts – but these people will have longer commutes that likely now involve carpools. The American dream they were chasing will be found to be a mirage – a very sad ending that could have been avoided had we made this policy switch earlier.

Exurban Dwellers (LOSERS): Take the losses of the “drive until you quality” suburban dwellers and put them on steroids, then you will have exurban dwellers. While some of these people are rural dwellers living too close to a major metropolitan area, the majority of the population is tied to and dependent on that metro for their livelihood. The last link in the Ponzi scheme always loses the most and, unfortunately, that is the exurban dwellers. In the coming generation, many of their homes will be used for salvage, the individual wires and fixtures and trim having more value disassembled. As we walked away from our urban neighborhoods after World War II, we will voluntarily walk away from these investments as well. My proposal simply hastens the inevitable and, by doing so, limits the number of lives that are destroyed in the process.

Rural Dwellers (WINNERS): While many rural dwellers would consider my plan a disaster – build them roads straight and wide – I’m going to advocate that this would be a huge bonus for rural areas. And by rural areas, I’m not talking about the hobby farms on the far edge of town or the converted resort cabin on the lake or in the woods. I’m talking about real farms, forests and mines. The kind that are priced out of existence, forced to expand and over-commoditize, driven into debt and then completely disconnected from the local market. We in rural areas have seen a little bit of benefit from our 45 mph world, but really, we’ve also destroyed an entire way of life and placed well over half of Minnesota’s small towns on life support in the process. It is too late to save most of them – we’re going to lose hundreds in the next decades – but to help the rest thrive again, we need to re-localize the economy.

Lobbyists (LOSERS): The Move MN coalition and their patrons – a long list of professional whiners dedicated to perpetuating and exploiting the centralized, paternalistic relationship between state and local governments – will not have much to do in a depoliticized transportation system, one dedicated primarily to maintaining what we have already built. As individuals, a lot of these people are probably decent and redeemable and so I hope they find jobs working for positive change in the places they live, albeit with a smaller expense account. Hopefully they won’t try to replace the (yuck) high they get from “access” to power with illegal substances but, either way, my Twitter feed will be a lot cleaner without their constant propaganda.

Local Politicians (MIXED): I’m often told (most often by the lobbyists and their patrons – see above) that local governments are run by idiots and we can’t trust them to make good decisions. While I would put forth that government, in general, has a high proportion of clueless people in leadership positions, it is not a higher proportion than you find in the general population. In other words, government leadership doesn’t attract idiots but rather reflects the general competence of society (which has a fair number of idiots). That’s a theory, mind you, so feel free to disagree.

I have worked with many city councils, however, where the individual incompetence is particularly magnified by the collective action. That being said, I’ll paraphrase the great Hans Monderman who said ”when you treat people like idiots, they act like idiots.” Amen. Few sane people not interested in climbing the political ladder would want to be on a city council. You have all the responsibility, none of the power. You are a punching bag with little to no pay. It is a horrible job. It attracts a lot of low IQ, disgruntled, dead-end people because of that.

For that subset of our population, my proposal is going to be rough. Time to grow up and get real. For people who have the imagination, the leadership skills and the desire to make their places better, a new day will dawn. This is going to mean that some cities will innovate, adapt and see their places soar while others will stagnate or decline. My friends, that is a long way to describe “progress”. So long as we don’t let cities blow themselves up (which a limit on debt is designed to do), we can avoid most failures and even the worst run places can find a way to make incremental progress over time.

County Politicians (LOSERS): I want to be at the meeting when the county engineer is forced to explain how, without state subsidies and without shifting wealth from municipalities, they don’t have any money to keep that over-designed highway from reverting back to the two-tire path it was thirty years ago. The five homes along that trail thirty years ago are still the only development along it and the occupants of those homes – who pay a few hundred dollars a year in TOTAL county taxes yet have their road maintained, snow plowed, ditches mowed on someone else’s dime – show up to lament how America is going to hell, how we are just not the great country we once were. For once, we’ll be thankful counties overreacted after 9/11 and installed airport-like security procedures.

I know there is an urban equivalent to that – one where counties abandon the park-and-ride in the cornfield and then have a public hearing with the fast food joints and strip malls along the stroad to see if they want to come up with some money now that their subsidies have disappeared – and I’d like to be at that meeting too. Hopefully the news reporters call me so I can provide some economic context for why an investment of $400,000 worth of sewer, water, sidewalk, curb, roadway and parking lot is not viable by slinging 99 cent tacos in a drive through lane.

State Politicians (LOSERS): You might say “winner” and I certainly think any legislature that passed my plan would ultimately be seen as statesman of the highest order, but in the short term, politicians are loath to give up power, which is exactly what they would be doing. As the current transportation financing approach is seen more and more to a bad trade for most, there might be some winners from making a change. I’m not naïve enough to think we are there yet. There is still a lot of road to kick this can down, albeit with a growing number of potholes.

Free Market Advocates (WINNERS): I count myself among this group and I love the concept of transportation spending decisions actually being made by supply and demand, not political patronage or arbitrary standard. In a related sense, I also love the notion that local governments can customize their approach to the economics of their own community. (Note that there is a fairly large swath of people that think of themselves as “free market advocates” that will be shocked to find out how insolvent the current system is and how non-market oriented it is. They will have to find a way to make their free market beliefs congruent with their socialist outcomes, but that will be a healthy inner struggle.)

Small Business Entrepreneurs (WINNERS): I’m separating the locally owned and originated business from the franchise or chain business. As we looked at earlier this year, the latter is really a vehicle for absconding community wealth, not building it. These small businesses are starting out by serving a local market, but the table is tilted so far in support of their franchise/corporate competition that it is the rare gem that can make it. If we want an entrepreneurial culture, we have to tilt the table the other way, in favor of the small startup. Today, I would just settle for a level playing field. My proposal would be a big step in that direction.

Seniors (WINNERS): Today’s new class of seniors have grown up with the automobile. And affluence. They are not used to anything but an improving situation and are rather disillusioned with the notion that America may have overshot with our approach to one kind of transportation. Their generational mentality is the driving force for today’s Move MN proposal, the notion of “what we have not….and that too.” As this group moves in greater and greater numbers to urban areas – which they are doing – they will support and even demand improvements to our cities. That this will mean defunding their approach of the past 40 years won’t occur to them (they will assume we are a great nation and, of course, great nations do this kind of thing, thank you Tom Friedman), but they will be able to ignore it, or blame it on others, because it won’t be their day-to-day reality. That day-to-day reality will be whatever they demand it be because they have the voters, their people in power and a disproportionate share of the country’s assets. As Boomers cut back on driving, we will all cut back on driving. End of story.

Children (WINNERS): The happy accident of the Boomers ensuring that they will be winners in whatever economy comes next is that, for the time being, the transportation interests of seniors aligns with those of children. I used to love going to the store with my parents. My kids hate it. Why? A large part of the reason is that a trip to town means 20 minutes each way strapped into a seat in the back of the car. A modern transportation system will give children the autonomy their brains and bodies need to thrive.

Minnesota Residents (WINNERS): Transportation is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. Today our taxpayers are asked to serve a system that doesn’t properly serve them. My proposal aligns the desires of citizens with the actions of state government, without the filter of political patronage. It also creates a new set of incentives for local communities to work on addressing the needs of their people, not chasing state and federal money. Transitions are often difficult, and this one would not be pain free, but the result of a little bit of pain today – or a whole lot of pain in the future – will be a stronger, healthier and more prosperous Minnesota.

 

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