For quite a while now, conservatives in the United States - of which I am generally one - have been champions of the current model of development. When the governor of my home state, Tim Pawlenty, ran for the office in 2000, his campaign openly derided alternative approaches to transportation, such as rail options, and he pledged to build "Roads, Roads, Roads". The populist side of the Republican party - the side that embraces big-government conservatism - has long held up the post-WW II development model as the measure of success. As a result, they have had no qualms subsidizing it to a massive extent.
Growing up in a small town, I came to believe two widely-held misconceptions:
- Those that live in rural areas subsidize the highway construction and maintenance, not to mention the transit options, of those that live in urban areas, and
- That the large lot (rural) residential development that we were building across the countryside generated wealth that paid for itself many times over.
Not only were these notions wrong, they were wrong on a degree of scale that makes the entire belief laughable. Urban areas are net exporters of wealth to rural areas, and that has been necessary to support the post-WW II development pattern. The fact that this shift of capital from efficient urban areas to inefficient suburban and rural areas has impacted the ability of urban areas to grow (and thus generate additional wealth) is a sad irony.
The massive debt we have taken on at all levels of government to further maintain this pattern is, in contrast, a tragic irony. When we thought we were wealthiest, we were actually borrowing at record levels. It seems apparent now, when we actually need the ability to leverage capital, that we were delusional, at best.
This brings me to a video released by former Speaker of the House, Republican Newt Gingrich. Listen to Newt describe a revolution in infrastructure that is necessary to make it efficient, productive and flexible.
Of his eight ideas for creating this new world, none would directly impact small towns in a positive way. Many would, necessarily, shift resources to investments that would be more "efficient" and "productive", as Newt calls for. Take the example of the mega-project of the 300 mph train.
A train of this speed is technologically possible. It would make the current 24+ hour trip by rail between Minneapolis and New York into something around four hours. It would travel New York to Los Angeles - a trip nobody would ever take by rail today because it would take days - into something a little over ten hours. Amazing advancement, right? Absolutely. But remember, a four hour ride between Minneapolis and New York could not possibly stop at every small town in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania. If it did, like today's trains do, it would be a 24+ hour ride. Newt's train would stop in Chicago, Cleveland, maybe Pittsburg and then end in New York. All big cities. Efficient and productive. A huge return on investment, but geographically limited to those areas.
The third of Newt's principals for a modern infrastructure system was "flexibility". I spent last Friday in an undisclosed small town, taking photos and making notes, and witnessed a city development pattern that forces people to drive for all trips, even those as short as two blocks. Small towns lack flexibility. For the most part, they have forsaken their original design (which did provide flexibility) and given themselves completely over to an auto-centric development pattern, not only at tremendous cost, but at an absolute loss of flexibility. Small town America can not survive in a free market with $5 gasoline.
But urban areas are very flexible. Need to get somewhere? You can drive, walk, bike, bus or sometimes take a train. Those modes can all be retrofitted and adapted on-the-fly in response to a future change in the world or advance in technology. Gas goes to $5 per gallon - it would be tough, but not catestrophic, for our urban areas.
The lesson here is two fold. First (and this is mainly directed to my fellow conservative-leaning, supposedly fiscally-prudent, American-dream-loving leaders), let's stop kidding ourselves that the last fifty years of growth and development in Small Town America is a natural, market-driven phenomena. It is a Ponzi scheme of subsidy, debt and near-sighted government incentives that have propped this system up. It is not a natural development pattern and it cannot be financially sustained. We all know we are broke. Let's acknowledge the populist-conservative role in that.
Then second, in order for Small Towns to survive, they need to get stronger. In the case of infrastructure, stronger means exactly what Newt is calling for: efficient, productive and flexible. We need to make better use of our massive infrastructure investments. We need to see significant returns on the money we spend. And we need to evolve to be more flexible, which is another way of saying we need to create more choices for people as we develop our small towns. In other words, we need to start growing Strong Towns.