Yesterday I gave a talk to the City Engineers Association of Minnesota. The speaker before me spoke about communication and offered helpful suggestions like "don't reply to public Facebook messages." There were rumblings of outrage when she told the assembled how some residents went out and painted their own crosswalks -- heaven forbid -- and then walked them through how to handle the media (tip: do the sandblasting to remove the offensive paint marks at night when the chances of a reporter showing up is reduced). It brought me back to the days when I worked for an engineering firm and we were told to never talk to the press (a difficult requirement for me since my wife is/was a reporter).
Of course, it helps if you have something to say that people are interested in hearing. As we've taken this week to focus on #NoNewRoads, it's become more and more obvious that there is a massive schism between what people want and what policymakers, politicians and other insiders are delivering.
The bizarre thing about this schism is that those policymakers, politicians and insiders cite public opinion as the reason they can't make any changes to current policy. We want more money spent on roads. We want more than we're willing to pay for. We want that interchange, that frontage road, that big box store. We're demanding it and they are just giving us what we want.
It's not true. People want stuff fixed. They want a prudent government to maintain that which we've already built. They expect that, when we don't have the money, we won't just continue to build anyway. I've never run into anyone -- sans policymakers, politicians and insiders -- who supports building more stuff when we don't have the money to maintain what we have.
The suggestion of #NoNewRoads only seems radical when viewed from the paradigm of our current approach. In an rational dialog, #NoNewRoads is simply common sense. This campaign is clearly aligned with the mainstream of American thought. If you don't see that, you're not seeing clearly.
In my interview with Kevin Blanchard he indicated that, if Lafayette had been given a bunch more money for roads from the state or federal government, they would have wasted it. That's not because Kevin and his colleagues are incompetent. Quite the opposite; they are some of the brightest public servants I know. They would have wasted it because that is what our system is currently set up to do.
I had someone complain to me that #NoNewRoads is a negative campaign. Why don't you say what you are for instead of what you are against? That's a happy notion, and I certainly want to get to the point where we can have a real robust conversation about all the opportunities a different approach would create. Yet, it's impossible to have that conversation in a meaningful way when our current system is so crazy. This campaign is more like an intervention -- admitting you have a problem as the beginning of a twelve step program -- than it is a tale of competing aspirations.
I'm going to end this week the way we started it: stating what we in the Strong Towns movement believe should be our approach to transportation finance.
- 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.
- 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.
- The users of the system should pay for the system. That includes those hauling freight as well as those hauling kids to soccer practice.
- 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.
- 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.
If you care about these issues, please share our stuff with others. You will be able to find all of our #NoNewRoads materials at www.strongtowns.org/nonewroads.
After my talk yesterday the next panel discussion was "Transportation spending as economic development." It offered the old Infrastructure Cult mindset of politically-driven, top-down transportation spending with no real metrics or discernible outcomes except to move more cars more quickly. It was kind of depressing until the Q&A when audience members started pushing the panelists to respond to what they heard in my presentation. Things are changing.
(Top photo by the author, at the CEAM Conference 2016)