Today the Strong America Tour takes me to the nation’s capital. This is certainly not the first time that my work with Strong Towns has brought me here. Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to meet with legislators, executive branch officials, and advocacy groups. I was even once invited to a meeting by the White House in the executive office building. I’ve enjoyed these opportunities, but also found them rather frustrating.
Those of you that have had the opportunity to read Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity know that I don’t have the kind of five-point plan that makes for good national political spin. I’m routinely invited to suggest the one or two proactive pieces of legislation that can be enacted to bring about the Strong Towns vision. Early in their administration, the Trump transition team even asked me for advice on infrastructure spending. Needless to say, my advice has never been heeded.
That’s because my advice tends to be more, “First, do no harm” than anything else. In my book, I cite Nassim Taleb’s concept of Via Negativa, the gains that can be made by first removing things that are potentially doing harm. From Taleb’s book, Antifragile:
We know a lot more what is wrong than what is right, or, phrased according to the fragile/robust classification, negative knowledge (what is wrong, what does not work) is more robust to error than positive knowledge (what is right, what works). Knowledge grows by subtraction much more than by addition — given that what we know today might turn out to be wrong but what we know to be wrong cannot turn out to be right, at least not easily.
One thing that we know for sure is wrong is the way this country spends money on transportation. Whether it’s North Carolina destroying a small town to widen a highway, Louisiana running a new highway through the middle of a neighborhood, or any number of similar crazy projects moving ahead in zombie-like fashion, there is seemingly no end to the destruction being wrought with federal transportation dollars.
And while, sure, there is the occasional sidewalk or bus route that gets a little bit of money, the tradeoff for those crumbs is literally billions in spending on some of the lowest returning, most destructive projects imaginable. We’ve long called for #NoNewRoads — a freeze on all new transportation spending until there is significant reform — and fought against those in the Infrastructure Cult who self-servingly call for for more transportation spending, even when the numbers supporting that call are ridiculous.
Along these lines, last week something really invigorating happened. The advocacy organization Transportation for America — a group full of thoughtful people that I personally like and admire — made a major announcement. From their press release, written by their Director, Beth Osborne:
Why we are no longer advocating for Congress to increase transportation funding
Since our inception in 2008, Transportation for America has always primarily advocated for reforming the federal transportation program. But raising the gas tax or otherwise raising new funding overall has also been a core plank of our platform since 2013. With the release of our brand new policy platform and principles coming this Monday, Transportation for America is no longer asking Congress to provide an increase in money for federal transportation program. Why?
For as long as I’ve been working in transportation and probably longer, the debate surrounding the federal transportation program has been a one-note affair: a never-ending fight over who gets money and how much money they get. Those who get money want more flexibility to spend it however they want. Those who get a little money want a bigger piece of the pie. And then both political parties come together in a “bipartisan” way to grow the pie and keep everyone happy.
This two-dimensional debate always leaves out an urgently needed conversation about the purpose of this federal transportation program. What are we doing? Why are we spending $50 billion a year? What is it supposed to accomplish? Does anyone know anymore?
Nearly seven decades ago we set out with a clear purpose: connect our cities and rural areas and states with high-speed interstates and highways for cars and trucks and make travel all about speed. These brand new highways made things like cross-country and inter-state travel easier than we ever imagined possible. We connected places that weren’t well-connected before and reaped the economic benefits (while also dividing and obliterating some communities along the way).
We’ve never really updated those broad goals from 1956 in a meaningful way. We’ve moved from the exponential returns of building brand new connections where they didn’t exist to the diminishing, marginal returns of spending billions to add a new lane of road here and there, which promptly fills up with new traffic.
Why in the world would we just pour more money into a program that is “devoid of any broad, ambitious vision for the future, and [in which] more spending has only led to more roads, more traffic, more pollution, more inequality, and a lack of transportation options,” as I wrote in the Washington Post during Infrastructure Week?
What the program should be about is accountability to the American taxpayer—making a few clear, concrete, measurable promises and then delivering on them. The program should focus on what we’re getting for the funds we’re spending—not simply whether or not money gets spent and how much there was.
There is even more, and it’s really amazingly good. I encourage you to go to their site and read the entire thing. It’s all kinds of smart.
And it’s all kinds of brave too. Like, the principled kind of brave. It’s a lot easier to open doors when you’re aligned with those wanting to spend more. It’s more of a challenge to be the one suggesting we stop and think about things first. This move will make their work more difficult, but more meaningful. We should all admire them for their courage and vision.
So, this time it feels extra nice to be here in Washington DC where, not only is the city gorgeous and the weather nice, but where the list of friends and allies working to build strong cities, towns, and neighborhoods continues to grow. Bravo to Transportation for America for their leadership on these issues. We’re standing with you on this.