Charles, you agree with me that most of the long-range transportation plans written by states and metropolitan areas are “dismal.” But you imagine that planning is necessary for all sorts of reasons — efficiency, meeting national priorities, measuring results, and promoting innovations. Just because you think those are necessary goals, you insist that we must plan.
I submit to you that no long-range plan has ever met any of those goals, nor will one ever do so because they are impossible to meet over the long run. Efficiencies? When we don’t know what the future will bring or what people will want, we can’t imagine what will be efficient. Priorities? How can people today dictate priorities for the future, and how can Congress — where “all politics is local” — set national priorities anyway? Measuring results? When have government agencies ever bothered to follow up to see if their plans produced the results they claimed? And, by their tedious and time-consuming nature, long-range plans are much more likely to stifle innovations than promote them.
Since planning cannot do the things you ask of it, you have to consider two questions. First, are these goals really that important? Second, to the extent that they are, can you find ways to meet them other than through an endless and complicated planning process?
To a large degree, it makes more sense to focus on today’s problems than to try to plan for the distant future. In Return of the King, Gandolf tells the fellowship that the battle he proposes to fight will not solve all the problems of the world. “Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.”
We don’t know what kind of transportation cities will have in 2030, but we know what problems we face today. If we don’t solve those problems, they will only be worse in 2030. By planning for 2030 instead of solving today’s problems, we are really not planning at all.
To the extent that we do want to promote efficiency or some other national priority, there are much better ways to do so than to require states and metro areas to spend billions of dollars on plans that are obsolete the day they are signed. For example, Congress can distribute funds based on those goals.
I personally believe we would be much better off if transportation were funded more by user fees than by taxes. So one of my Cato reports urges Congress to allocate funds to the states based on the user fees those states collect. This would result in a “race to the top” as states substitute user fees for taxes to fund their transportation programs and be eligible for a larger share of federal funds. If you have other goals, I am sure you can figure out ways to put those goals in funding formulas instead of in a planning process that, you admit, hasn’t worked anyway.
Ultimately, the problem with long-range planning is that the world doesn’t work that way. Planners imagine a rational process, but we don’t have enough data to develop a rational plan, so it devolves into political battles. The world is based on incentives, not rational plans, so those who truly want efficient and sensible transportation should design incentives aimed at achieving those goals, not rely on a fantasy of a planning process that does not exist in reality.