Sheer Lunacy

Last Thursday I received this tweet out of the blue.

I assume that this comes in response to our series on a World Class Transpotation System (soon to be reformatted, edited and re-released as an ebook) where we talked about the financial dynamics of the way the initial private railroads were funded. Of course they were over built -- it is natural for any complex, adaptive system to grow beyond its capacities -- and then the market stepped in and revealed those bad investments for what they were.

For the record, the approach I put forward last spring includes a federal role in funding transportation but, recognizing we have a mature transportation system we are struggling to maintain, also includes mechanisms for localizing some decisions in an effort to more correctly correlate demand for improvements with willingness to pay.

If the issue is one federal leadership and whether or not it will have a different result than private railroads had in the 1870's, then the natural question is this:

Instead of answering that question, we get the bold assertion.

Of course, at Stong Towns we don't see things this way. Fighting over scraps from Washington D.C. is what the political establishment wants us to do. We want to see cities and towns unleash the wealth they have within them to build these systems now. Today! When done right -- when providing connections between productive places -- transit is an incredibly high return investment. We can accelerate our transit landscape dramatically once we turn our back on the D.C-centric approach (and demand the same for competing modes) and do things for ourselves.

This is where the quick reference is made to the talking points worksheet. Unfortunately for whoever is running this twitter account, my response doesn't fit into any of the pre-established boxes found there. Howver,

Hmmm.... Those of you that have been here a while know how little respect I have for dogmatic talking points.

Incoherence like this should fall on its own, but too often doesn't. The notion that local control would lead to "more unfunded mandates on strapped cities" makes a mockery of the English language. Local control and unfunded mandates are, in fact, opposite notions.  

And, of course, the current system forces every city and state to fight in Washington D.C. over an ever-tightening budget. I can't think of a system that creates more division and rancor than our current approach. Americans hate it -- thus the focus-group tested talking point -- but the answer is not more centralizations. Making these debates and decisions local, where the problem is real and can actually be solved by people working together, would do more to heal the division and rancor in this country than about any practical policy approach I can imagine.

Of course, our current political system benefits from the divide and rancor. That is why, if you find yourself this far along into a conversation and are struggling for your next volley, the talking points memo says to throw out a straw man argument.

Here's how you skewer a straw man.

And just to reiterate, I support a world class transit system in the city of Cleveland and every city in this country that sees a benefit in one. And, unlike organizations lobbying Washington D.C. for more funds, I actually have a plan that can make it happen.

And here's what happens when you run out of talking points.

I totally agree.

As a final note, while this was a conversation between @AllAboardOhio and me, @NextCityOrg was for some reason included in the thread (not initially by me). Whoever runs the @NextCityOrg twitter feed added the "favorite" in the first and last tweet, so they are apparently on board with the sentiment.

I really like the work that Next City does and appreciate the conversations going on there. I'll specifically reference this insightful piece, also released last Thursday, titled 4 Reasons Federal Money is Bad for U.S. Transit, which ironically included this quote:

But this [declining ridership on the Dallas Area Rapid Transit] hasn’t prevented systems from also being built in similarly sprawling cities like Phoenix, and declining, hollowed-out ones like Cleveland. The federal government’s willingness to fund them has all the makings of a poorly-executed top-down plan; it’s as if officials think that just because a transit blueprint works in a few places, it should be imitated everywhere, despite geographic and cultural differences.

Sheer lunacy, indeed.

Ohio is not going to shrivel up without federal transit dollars and, as the Next City article suggests, would actually benefit from a more localized and thoughtful approach. As would nearly every U.S city. This isn't an argument over whether transit is good or bad, wasteful or beneficial. The debate is whether we cling to a centralized, top-down system for transportation funding that is failing us or whether we learn from all the innovation going on outside of government and realize that, in a hyper-connected world, the bottom up approach might be a little chaotic, but it is really smart.

Failure to grasp this -- to brand it as "sheer lunacy" not even worthy of consideration -- is to fail to understand the dynamics of the economic transition we are going through. And to become, at best, irrelevant in the face of it. Success in the next America is not one where we all connect to the central server of Washington D.C. and download prosperity but one where the thousands of Clevelands, Akrons and Dovers build an interconnected localized prosperity, incrementally over time.

The sooner our leadership -- and those who put themselves forward to advocate on our behalf -- understand this, the more time and energy we can devote to ensuring the transition works for everyone, that we create success, instead of fighting to prop up a passing reality.

Let's start building an America of strong towns.