Transportation Series Update


I hate to do this to everyone because I feel like I am overpromising and under delivering (I am), but Friday’s post on “winners and losers” in the Strong Towns transportation finance structure is going to have to wait. Not only am I too exhausted to write after spending every night this week up late putting together the prior 9,400+ words, but I’m heading out of town for a while and have been too swamped getting things buttoned up to do today's post justice.

Some of the posts next week will open up this dialog a little bit more, provide some different voices and perspective. That is a good thing. While the feedback I received this week (at least from those that weren’t calling me a naïve idiot) affirmed that, at least, my proposals were thoughtful, I don’t assert that I have the perfect solution. Far from it. Consistent with the Strong Towns approach, we need to have some shared values and principles, but then we need to not be afraid to try things and see what works. Little bets.

For those that have disparaged the proposal I put forward – and understand that anytime you put forward a concrete idea, people attack it, even if they obviously haven’t bothered to read it – I will acknowledge that I tend more to the idealist side of the ledger than the realpolitik. I’ve said all along that the Move MN proposal is good politics. It would take tremendous leadership to propose something truly comprehensive, complex and – quite frankly – as challenging to our institutional inertia as my proposal is. We don’t have that kind of leadership, and even if we did, that kind of proposal is generally only possible during a time of crisis.

One might think that a projected $50 billion transportation shortfall presents a time of crisis, but alas, we are still prosperous enough to be able to ignore the core financial problems we face. That may persist, perhaps even for some time, but the inevitable mathematics of overwhelming liabilities will collide with increasing costs and decreasing demand to create the crisis. There will almost certainly be an trigger event – something similar to the housing correction of 2008 – that we will be able to blame our misfortune on, even though the occurrence of such an event is predictable, if not precisely identifiable in advance.

Our economy is incredibly fragile. Our approach to transportation funding is incredibly fragile. The Move MN proposal will make the system more fragile, not less. Fragile systems eventually break. It is really that simple.

So when that trigger happens and the crisis comes, instead of there being only the tired coalition of “more versus less,” there will be another, credible alternative to consider. Between now and then, I want to sharpen and refine the ideas put forward this week. And I want to get them in the hands of true leaders – all across the country – who can step up and inspire people at every level when the opportunity presents itself. That time is coming.

I’m personally deeply offended by the Move MN proposal. A wholesale tax on gasoline is as disingenuous as it is crafty. That it is wrapped in a slick PR campaign, and all the right insider tradeoffs, all heretofore unquestioned by major media outlets, only intensifies my frustration. The broad coalition of vested interests – whether they directly benefit from more spending or simply by being players with a seat at the table – represents everything that I believe is wrong with government today. They will surely win the approval they desire. It is not a good outcome for Minnesota.

Someone emailed me and said, “Chuck, I just want a train.” I get that. We live in a country where, through a complex set of financial circumstances, we created an illusion of wealth that has conditioned us to think big. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We need big thinkers with big ideas. And if your big idea is a train, you’ve been in the intellectual wilderness a long time. I understand the impulse that makes you want to embrace a deal – any deal – that gets you that train now.

I have a big idea too. I want to change this country. Make it stronger. Healthier. More prosperous for everyone. I want to transform our governments, our businesses and our neighborhoods. I want a nation in a self-perpetuating cycle of improvement, a Zen state between pleasure and pain, where wealth is not a byproduct of efficiency, but of strength. Real, enduring strength. The kind that doesn’t show up in the GDP report but instead can be found in the generosity, contentment and humility of our people. That’s what I want. That’s my train.

There is no coalition for that. There’s just me.

So I write. That’s what I do. First it was for myself, to help me deal with a world that didn’t work as I thought it should. Then a handful of people tuned in. Now it is tens of thousands of different people each month, a number that continues to grow at rates that astonish me. Nobody is going to give it to me as part of a political bargain, a way to secure my support, but who’s to say that someday – slowly and surely – I won’t get my train.

And even if I don’t, at least I’ll know that the progress we have made here at Strong Towns is real. There is no illusion in the slow, incremental growth this movement has experienced. The results of countless hours of hard work won’t simply disappear. It can’t be taken away.

Ultimately, that’s the difference between your train and mine. And it is the one, true key to understanding how to build a strong town.

 

A World Class Transportation System

  • Day 5: An analysis of winners and losers (coming soon)