This week at Strong Towns we are going to focus our attention on the embarrassing mess that is the American system system of transportation finance. Our premise here at Strong Towns has been, for some time now, #NoNewRoads, a rejection of any proposal to spend more money on this system until we undertake dramatic reform.

That position puts us at odds with advocates on the left of our political spectrum as well as those on the right. So be it. The current political paradigm is bankrupting this country, misrepresenting the values of Main Street America in the process. It's time to create a new paradigm.

Diminishing Returns

Just a few hundred million dollars for the American Dream in Texas.

Just a few hundred million dollars for the American Dream in Texas.

There was bi-partisan logic to the creation of the interstate highway system and the funding of those improvements through the gas tax, an approach that replaced a random set of state and local efforts with the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956.

America is a vast continent. Connecting remote places with high performance roadways was economically transformative. Railroads, which had a sort of de-facto  monopoly for moving commodities as well as finished products, now faced real competition. Prices dropped and quality American goods became the backbone of global rebuilding as well as domestic prosperity.

At the same time, the capacity being built to connect distant places was being mined by state and local governments for short-term economic gain. Even though the congestion they wrought diminished the capacity of the interstates, suburbs provided such an incredible economic sugar high that a generation used to depression and war didn't stop to question the financial logic of providing services to the same number of people over a vastly broader area.

Economists, always happy to deploy their alchemy in the service of politics, developed some simple relationships in those early years that have become deeply embedded in our cultural consciousness. Mobility = Prosperity. Transportation Spending = Economic Growth. Infrastructure = Quality Jobs. Not only are these associations the unquestioned rhetorical gospel of politicians and policy-wonks, their perverse derivations are enshrined in the very way we prioritize current spending.

It is one thing to connect remote places with a high speed roadway; quite another to add a fifth and sixth lane to improve capacity.

It is one thing to get commodities to market; quite another to bring finished goods back at prices that destroy local economies.

It is one thing to have the freedom to drive; quite another to have no other option.

We've long passed the point of diminishing returns.

Brutally Efficient 

Even our neighborhood streets now meet highway standards.

Even our neighborhood streets now meet highway standards.

Planning an interstate system that spanned the entire continent was a massive undertaking. Thinking we were going to build it in a generation was borderline insane, yet that amazing generation did just that.

This didn't happen randomly. It took an incredible level of coordination. In a very short period of time, Americans developed the standards for planning, financing, selling to the public and then constructing national transportation systems. It did not take long for this knowledge to filter through to every level of government, something that professional organizations helped to facilitate. 

When environmental and social justice concerns with the approach became too overt to ignore, these same systems were able to address them in the same brutally efficient way. We have stuff to do; let's get it done.

Of course, the downside of efficiency is a lack of innovation. While we finished building the interstates decades ago, the system is so entrenched -- and our bubble economy so dependent on it -- that we're finding it impossible to substantively change it.

Nearly every state is choking on maintenance costs yet they all continue to build more. If it wasn't so tragic, the absurdity of it would be hysterical.

Reflecting American Values

Do Americans want to pay more taxes for transportation? No, they really don't, yet there are a number of instances -- most recently from anti-tax Texas -- where voters have been willing to spend more. 

Here's a common sense approach that a consensus of Americans seem willing to support:

  1. Let's prioritize fixing what we have. We should not build anything new until we've figured out how to pay to maintain what we've already built.
  2. Anything new that is built must not be the result of paybacks in a system of pork-barrel politics but the result of a rigorous, independent financial analysis.
  3. The users of the system should pay for the system. That includes those hauling freight as well as those hauling kids to soccer practice.
  4. We can't just keep building highways. Our approach to transportation has to acknowledge the limits of more road building and the benefits of alternative approaches.
  5. We cannot ignore the complex relationships -- positive and negative -- between the way we approach transportation and the impact that has on our cities, towns and neighborhoods. Allowing these to continue as separate undertakings -- transportation and land use in different silos -- is self-defeating and economically suicidal.

A Strong Towns Approach

We've taken top/down transportation spending as far as it will go. We now need to look outside the right-of-way for the next generation of improvement.

We've taken top/down transportation spending as far as it will go. We now need to look outside the right-of-way for the next generation of improvement.

Some have taken our #NoNewRoads approach as a suggestion that we are against additional funding for transportation. That is not the case. We acknowledge that more money is needed if we have any hope of maintaining a coherent approach in the coming decades. I've even written a book detailing where that money should come from. We are not opposed to more funding.

What we at Strong Towns understand, however, is that our current system of growth and development -- of which transportation spending is a huge part -- is bankrupting us from the neighborhood level up. Our biggest fear today is not a lack of funding but a series of political compromises that squander our remaining resources before we make substantive reforms. We need those resources for the transition to a new paradigm, and we're willing to forego some minor improvements to the system today in service of this more urgent need. 

This week we're going to look critically at our system of transportation finance. We're going to look nationally today and invite you to participate in that conversation. The next three days we're going to examine some of what's happening in Texas (Tuesday), Minnesota (Wednesday) and Washington State (Thursday) as a way to delve into the good and bad happening at the state and community level. On Friday we're going to pull it together and reflect on what we've discovered.

Please do your part this week to take part in the conversation and, most importantly, to share it with others. This is not just about transportation; it's about the future of this country and the prospects for continued prosperity in your community. It's time we focus on building a nation of strong towns.


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