We talk a lot here about the negative impacts of federal transportation spending. We've made a few of our friends angry with us over our #NoNewRoads campaign, a suggestion that we need to figure out how we're going to fix what we've already built before we go building a bunch more stuff. Can't we do both, Chuck? No, we can't.
We can't because our system is broken in a way that funding won't cure. It's broken in a way that policy tweaks won't solve. Our federal transportation funding system is broken at a fundamental level because of the very values and objectives we're collectively trying to achieve with it:
- As a nation, we believe that the faster we can drive, the wealthier we become.
- As a nation, we believe that the more land opened up for development through transportation investments, the more prosperous we are.
- As a nation, we believe that all traffic congestion is a bad, that we must fight against it by adding more and more capacity.
These are all wrong. Fast travel between two places increases productivity, but within a place it destroys property values. Opening up land for development has diminishing returns, and when we spread things out too far we bankrupt our cities. Traffic congestion between places can be harmful, but in a city it is a sign of vitality and prosperity and a driver of investment.
Our fundamental objectives are wrong, but what's far worse is what we're willing to do in pursuit of them.
I got off the plane in Shreveport, Louisiana, last October at the end of seven days straight on the the road. I was tired. My bags didn't make it and I was feeling grouchy. Unshaven, using toiletries from a vending machine and wearing the clothes I had traveled on three connections in the day before, I set off on foot to the Allendale neighborhood. If you had asked me at the time, I would have professed that my thoughts were inward; my heart was not very receptive to what I was about to experience and learn. That changed quickly.
I know how to read a neighborhood. As we approached the meeting place, I started to see -- amid the clear signs of disinvestment -- signals that this was a special place. A friendly wave and a shout out from someone sitting on a front porch. Trimmed flowers in front yards next to city streets that were falling apart. Fresh paint on houses that had seen better days. And everywhere, signs that said "We Care" which, to my eyes, was redundant.
We approached the community's "Friendship House" and went inside. I was greeted with a level of warmth and kindness as genuine as it was undeserved. These new friends went on to tell me a story I had a hard time believing. There was a highway project in advanced stages of consideration that, if constructed, would run right through their neighborhood. It would destroy many of their homes, cut the rest off from each other and completely change the nature of their community. And their neighborhood was being targeted because, as a neighborhood with a high rate of poverty, it was considered blight.
These maps come from the project's environmental inventory. The one on the left shows high poverty neighborhoods. The one on the right shows the percentage of minority populations in each neighborhood.
How is this possible? Was it 1962 all over again? Today, do we not have greater levels of sensitivity and a deeper understanding for situations like this? Apparently not. Not only was their story true, but the idea of the project has created an economic Sword of Damocles that has driven out investment and stagnated the neighborhood, despite the love they have shown it.
I started to look around. This is a Strong Towns place, one where many small investments would create huge returns at very low risk. These are Strong Citizens, people invested in each other who are working together with what they have to make their place better. What they need most is a chance, to have the threat of this antiquated project removed so they can get on with their lives.
This week we're going to look deeply at this project and the Allendale neighborhood. They are unique in many ways, although aspects will look familiar to almost everyone. We've seen this story before.
We're going to dig into the economic analysis. We're going to look at the traffic information. We're going to introduce you to the neighborhood and some of the people who live there. We're going to show you some of the great things going on in Shreveport, amazing successes that get crowded out by efforts like this. And we're going to provide a different vision for how Allendale can prosper and, by extension, the entire city of Shreveport can become a stronger place.
I looked through dozens of official documents, as well as numerous news reports, getting ready for this week and am surprised at how few mention the project's cost, even the so-called economic impact analysis. And why would they? It's not a big concern. The people advocating for the I-49 Inner City Connector are not planning to pay for it, not in any real way. In a cost benefit analysis where the local cost is approaching zero, any benefit -- any at all -- makes the project a positive for local advocates. It might burden the conscience that they have to sacrifice a poor neighborhood and dislocate some of the disadvantaged members of their community, but it's the price of progress. Labeling Allendale "blight" helps assuage those misgivings.
Our efforts here are not about convincing public officials in Shreveport to abandon this project -- although that would be a welcome outcome that needs to happen -- but to convince our audience that we must abandon our current approach to transportation funding, that we can do so much better, with far less harm, by shifting funding to the state and local levels. We built the interstate system -- job well done (four decades ago) -- and now our approach needs to change.
As we proceed this week, you're going to see things that are familiar to where you live. Help add to our narrative by sharing your story in the comments section.
You can also join us for a discussion with two Strong Towns members and Shreveport residents on Slack this Thursday at 1pm central. More information here.
(Photos from Re-Form Shreveport facebook page)