Friends and colleagues have been encouraging me to get involved in a conversation that is happening at the federal level regarding transportation funding, congestion and emissions. I've been told that this is central to what Strong Towns is all about, that our voice should be part of this conversation and that what we might say or do would have a major impact on this debate.
I spent this past weekend in Carlton Landing, Oklahoma, where I toured a new development and gave a talk as part of the town's speaker series. In my travels there and back I did my due diligence reviewing information and trying to get to the point where I felt I could speak intelligently on the specific issues being discussed. I'm technically way more confused now then when I started, but a few things are abundantly clear.
An Incoherent Transportation Program
First, it is not possible to have a more incoherent program than one with the combined objectives of making it easier to drive and reducing auto emissions. That is what the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program is. While CMAQ funds are not to be used for additional capacity, eligible projects include those that:
...improve traffic flow, including projects to improve signalization, construct HOV lanes, improve intersections, add turning lanes, improve transportation systems management and operations that mitigate congestion and improve air quality.
I'm sure some of you can send me notice of the happy local projects that have been funded with CMAQ dollars. The only ones I have known are the ones that add turns lanes, build interchanges and "improve intersections" by making it easier for cars to make corners without slowing down. There is an engineer in an ivory tower somewhere that has studied how this theoretically reduces emissions. That person's findings should be the subject of ridicule, not the basis of serious policy discussion.
A Convoluted Transportation Framework
Another thing that is abundantly clear is that, as we try to do more and more complex and hyper-local things out of Washington DC, the entire policy framework becomes more and more convoluted. I have a graduate degree, an engineering license and many years of experience along with having an above average reading ability. How can I recommend that all of you take some type of advocacy action in support of a policy when I can't understand even this one proposed rule? Here's one of my favorite examples of the incoherence, this on system performance metrics:
What I can tell you is that the equation above is statistical BS. Rounding to the nearest hundredth of a decimal place adds mathematical mockery to a ridiculousness wrapped in the veneer of opaque bureaucrat-speak. They may take themselves seriously, but you should not.
An Unbalanced Transportation System
The third thing I am now more convinced of than ever is that this entire system has destroyed our local governments' ability to solve problems, has made them essentially dependent wards of the state. Over the weekend my local newspaper published a story, of sorts, about a gathering of all the area's experts involved in making our transportation system work. It was a vivid representation of conversations happening all over the country. Like addicts suffering from withdrawal symptoms, the obsession is, as always, who is going to give us more money. From the article:
"Costs were just outpacing revenues, and everyone was falling behind," [Aitkin County Engineer John] Welle said. "We're just kicking the can down the road."
Welle said one-quarter of all paved roads in Aitkin County are more than 20 years old, with the typical lifespan of pavement at 15-20 years.
"We delay these projects year after year and just hope that eventually we get some increased funding to be able to get ahead of the game a little bit," Welle said.
That this imbalance was easy to see coming -- who did he think was going to have to maintain all these roads once state and federal dollars "helped" build them? -- is never acknowledged. Here's another, this one calling for the legislature to unite and pass a comprehensive transportation package:
"If we're ever going to solve our problem here, we're going to have to work together," [Brainerd city engineer Jeff] Hulsether said. "The bottom line is, cities are really hurting right now. We can't seem to get any traction at the Legislature."
And one more, this one calling on the public to demand more funding:
"I have to turn to the voters, the public, that they really stand up and say this has got to stop," [Aitkin county commissioner Donald] Niemi said. "If you want change, you've got to really let your legislator know that this is a big deal. ... You can't quit, you've got to keep on. Sometimes, I think, does it even pay? You're doggone right it does. Silence is acceptance."
Of course it should be noted that the last quote is from an elected official, someone who ostensibly could adopt some rational policies to stop the county from adding new lane miles to a system they already can't afford, enact some reforms to prioritize maintenance and he even could -- gasp -- actually vote to raise local revenue for projects that he finds important. None of this has happened or seems likely to happen.
Impact on Local Governments
When I claim that this system has destroyed local governments' ability to solve problems, this is what I mean. What is local government? Theoretically, it is us. Yet, when it's not oriented towards us but instead gets it cues and feedback from those higher up the government food chain, the policy results don't actually reflect our values. They reflect the policy wonk values -- nicely summarized in GDP and unemployment metrics, perhaps even to two decimal points -- and all the local nuance is completely overwhelmed. Here's another quote from that article:
"I don't think the public even realizes the degree to which our highway system doesn't meet basic safety standards," Welle said. "We could do a road safety audit on those roads and find any number of areas where the roads don't contain the basic safety features."
Welle said proper funding could prevent crashes and reduce the severity of those that occur, but a disconnect exists for the public between taxes and road infrastructure.
"A lot of the public are against tax increases when you ask them that question outright," Welle said. "I don't think they realize not investing in our use-based system is directly resulting in the highways they drive on not being up to safety standards."
Why does federal funding pay for the construction of my local street? Why can we secure millions in state and federal money for expansion projects but we can't afford to paint a crosswalk? Why do our engineers -- licensed professionals -- accept safety compromises instead of capacity reductions? Why, if local taxpayers are unwilling to pay for local roads, is it an issue for state and federal governments lawmakers, instead of local officials, to solve?
The answer here is actually quite simple although nearly unfathomable to everyone involved: The federal government should maintain the interstates -- those major highways that connect commerce centers across state lines. States should maintain -- and expand where they find the cost justifies -- routes that are contained within a state while cities and counties should pay for roadways and streets that serve strictly local needs.
The value of the interstate system is in the ability of moving people and goods over a long distance in a reasonable period of time. In other words, interstate commerce, the entire constitutional justification for the existence of this system. The value of the interstate is not to be found in subsidizing suburban commutes, although that is a cheap and easy way to boost GDP and reduce unemployment if you care only about the next few quarters.
Getting Value from our Transportation System
To ensure that we are getting value out of the federal system, we need to use price signals -- congestion pricing and tolling -- to correlate supply and demand and give us accurate feedback on where coarse federal investments should be made. We don't need to mask our desires by pretending that fighting congestion -- making it easier for more people to drive more often -- is the same as reducing emissions. We don't need thousands of lines of incoherent rules as a means to lie to ourselves.
I feel foolish for having wasted my time and yours here. This is nothing more than rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. The only viable responses to the complex problems that face us are going to come from our cities, towns and neighborhoods. The only positive state and federal action is going to happen when enough cities, towns and neighborhoods want change OR when the system goes broke and becomes irrelevant. I hope the former happens before the latter, but one or the other is going to happen.
This is why I'm not going to urge you to write your senator or representative to get some rule changed. I won't waste your efforts and passion. Instead, go out and do what you can to make your place a strong town. And help your neighbors to do the same.