In my last article, I talked about my home state of Missouri, a state whose road budget relies on a super-low gas-tax, and our Department of Transportation's (MoDOT) counter-intuitive proposal to patch a budget shortfall by charging higher registration fees on fuel-efficient vehicles who “fail” to pay their fair share.
I was a little tough on MoDOT in that piece, and I want to be clear about something: I don’t think that every last state transportation department employee is a supervillain who wants nothing more than to destroy our towns through senseless, expensive, quality-of-life destroying suburban-style development. Supervillains like that do exist—don’t get me wrong—but the reason our current transportation system has become so convoluted isn’t all about evil, or even about greed. For every person who’s profiting in the short term from our country’s self-destructive obsession with constant growth, there are thousands who simply can’t imagine the world another way, and have no idea that we can’t afford the things we build.
And that failure of imagination is something we can change.
MoDOT recently released a survey to get the public’s take on our state’s long range transportation priorities. I’m going to go ahead and be blunt: from a Strong Towns perspective, it’s a bit of a mess. And it’s important to note that it’s likely not a deliberate mess, as much as it’s a result of a culture of transportation that is convoluted, painfully unimaginative, and deeply entrenched. MoDOT notes that this survey was the result of an extensive outreach process that put them “in conversation with thousands of Missourians,” who ostensibly have never known (and may not even have the tools to consider) another way of building. Not surprisingly, this approach generated a survey that asks residents to cast their vote for exactly the kinds of "changes" we're all used to—add more lanes, raise more highway bridges, speed up those roads, spend, spend, spend. And there's no mention of the fact that these approaches just don't work.
But the thing is: we can change the world we live in so much more than this. And we will, incrementally, through small actions that slowly break the dominant approach. I want to give you the tools, if you’re a Missourian, to take this survey right now, make your opinion heard, and share it with five friends. And if you’re not a Missourian, I want this to serve as a template for future interactions with your own DOT, or anyone who thinks that the terms of our transportation debate are as limited as this 10 minute survey might suggest.
Let’s dive in.
1. GOAL AREAS
After a brief welcome, the MoDOT survey asks some seemingly simple questions about whether you agree with four identified goal areas for state transit. They’re not the most nuanced questions.
Luckily, you do have the handy “optional comment” button to expound upon each and every one of your answers. You can bet I took advantage of that feature.
Here’s how I answered this section, with a few handy links for those who might want to learn more about why I voted the way I did:
For the statement “Take care of the transportation system and services we enjoy today,” I clicked “Agree,” and offered this comment: “I agree that street maintenance should be our highest priority, and should be prioritized much higher than building new roads. However, I’d also support privatization, returning to gravel, or revisiting the funding mechanisms of streets with development patterns that don’t generate the revenue necessary to maintain themselves.”
For the statement “Keep all travelers safe, no matter the mode of transportation,” I clicked “Agree,” and added “...and recognize that fast-moving, auto-centric development in populous city centers is inherently unsafe for other transport modes and unsuitable for the communities we care about.”
For the statement “Invest in projects that spur economic growth and creates jobs”, I clicked “Disagree” and kicked it back to the Strong Towns mission in my comment: “Job creation and economic growth are the results of a healthy local economy, not substitutes for one. Overbuilding our road system “creates” jobs only in the short term construction industry and saps our community’s abilities to organically create jobs in place and become truly prosperous.”
For the statement “Give Missourians better transportation choices (transit, bike/pedestrian, rail, ports and airports)” I clicked “Agree” and clarified it a bit: “But I believe they should be developed incrementally, in response to real feedback from the bottom up. Top-down silver bullet transportation projects can distort surrounding land values, waste money and ignore real community feedback.”
2. PRIORITY AREAS
So, this one’s a doozy.
In this segment of the survey, MoDOT asks you to rank your priorities for the system. You’ll notice that some pretty core Strong Towns values don’t even rank.
I pretty arbitrarily ranked “Sustainability,” “Preserve Existing System,” and “Freight Movement” as my top 3, mostly because I trust MoDOT on those options slightly more than on the others (though, to be honest, not fully). Then I made liberal use of that handy “Suggest another” button at the bottom to give these options:
- Financial sustainability (land the road is on generates enough wealth to maintain itself)
- Feedback-sensitive funding mechanisms (e.g. variable tolls on certain roads, taxes on vehicle miles travelled scaled to vehicle weight)
- Slow the cars in areas where people are walking
- No new roads
- Never, ever, ever build another lane to “relieve congestion.”
3. WHAT’S MOST IMPORTANT TO YOU?
This pop up just makes me smile a little. Again, you can see MoDOT edging right up to the reality that none of the ways we fund our roads make any sense, but they can’t come right out and say something as ostentatious as “By the way, drivers, you think you’re paying for the roads you use, but you’re not—by about half. What are we going to do about that?”
But as you get into the bulk of the survey, you’ll realize fairly quickly that this segment isn’t exactly designed to get real, common-sense answers out of the general public who use our roads.
Thank heavens for my dear old friend, the optional comment button.
For the statement “Keep my costs the same, even if that means the condition of the system declines over time and no new facilities are built,” I rated the scenario four stars and gave this (slightly sassy) comment: “Actually, as someone who primarily commutes by bike, I’d love it if my costs decreased to reflect the actual, negligible wear and tear I put on our roads. But until that happens, I’d love to see MO commit to building no new roads, downgrading or privatizing the roads that fail to generate the wealth necessary to maintain themselves, and developing feedback-responsive funding mechanisms to ensure that we can maintain those roads that currently require subsidies from better-planned urban centers.”
For the statement “Expanding the transportation system (adding lanes, building new roads and interchanges), which could mean paying more or seeing the condition of the system and services decline,” I rated the scenario 1 star, because I could not vote zero, and added the snarky hashtag/comment “#NoNewRoads.”
For the statement “Improving road and bridge conditions, which means paying a little more and limiting the construction of new roadways,” I rated the scenario a somewhat arbitrary four stars and added “We should absolutely maintain what we have and stop building more infrastructure. However, in some instances, “improving” our roads would mean removing them outright or converting them to dirt or gravel, because they’re too much of an unjustified drain on our community resources.”
For the statement “Seeking new revenue for other transportation options, such as increased public transit and rail, or bicycle and pedestrian facilities,” I honestly didn’t know what to rate the scenario, so I picked a very random three stars and said “Ideally, new transportation wouldn’t require “new” revenue; it would be built incrementally and create community wealth as it grows, and where necessary, should divert revenue currently being poured into debt and our vastly overbuilt autocentric road network.”
The last section of the survey is a wrap up that allows you to view how other survey respondents voted; I’m going to let you review that on your own, (you’ll need to take the survey first to get there) because the current spread really bums me out.
But I’m not just moping. I’m asking each and every one of you reading in Missouri to take this survey now, and let MoDOT know what you think. Copy and paste my answers if you want, or express your Strong Towns values in your own words. Share it with a friend and have a conversation with them about why fixing our approach to transportation is more important than ever. Call your local streets department, your community representatives, and any other official whose ear you can bend. And if you don’t want to go it alone, contact me so I can help you gather your neighbors.
And if you’re not a Missourian? Your leaders are having these conversations right now too. Engage with them. Reach out. Share our content. Keep talking.
We won’t have truly strong towns until we radically change our culture and show the world that there are so many more options for our communities that can be built. We aren’t limited to disappointing, binary choices like raising the gas tax or raising the registration cost on fuel-efficient sedans. We have a whole world of creative solutions that we can implement precisely because we live in vibrant, varied communities with so many brains brimming with ideas, and so many hands ready to work.
I’m not an idealist. I know this survey, or any individual action, won’t make Missouri a paradise overnight. What I am—and what I want you to be—is a worker. Find small, incremental actions you can tackle, and then do them again, and again. Find the spaces where the conversations you’re passionate about are happening, and make your voice heard. Build the Strong Towns movement in your place. Keep at it. It’s the only way we’ll get there.