The Real Reason We Keep Getting Distracted by Transit Boondoggles

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As easily anticipated, the anti-transit chorus is calling for investigations, hearings, and accountability, as if such delays and cost overruns are particularly pernicious when they come from transit projects. A recent highway boondoggle project—the St. Croix River Bridge—came in over budget and behind schedule with barely a whimper from those now outraged.

Similarly, the pro-transit chorus is singing all the usual hymns of lament for unforeseen (and truly unforeseeable) problems. “Every dire prediction came true, the ones about cost overruns, the ones about the tunnel, the millions given away to railroads in negotiations,” said state Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-Minneapolis), who chairs the state House Transportation Committee. Nobody could have seen this coming, say the people who have a history of shepherding similar projects through similar rough circumstances.

The reactions of these two camps—to trash the project mercilessly or unconditionally back it to the end—obscure the real issues we should be discussing. In fact, it is projects like SWLR (and the St. Croix Bridge, for that matter) that are distractions in and of themselves: shiny objects we need to move beyond on our path to become a nation of Strong Towns.

The model for transportation projects coming out of World War II was simple. Not only did we need to grow our economy by connecting cities with interstates, but we needed to use centralized authority and top-down investments (public and private) to build middle-class enclaves on the outskirts of our metro areas. The very building of these places was the mechanism to create that middle class, boosting our economy in the process. Cities would lose population, sure, but they would retain economic vitality by configuring themselves to accommodate commuting culture. (Last week, I wrote about the negative impact of commuter culture on my small town.)

Grafted onto that commuter model evolved an approach to mass transit based on the same underlying goal: to bring distant commuters into the city center for employment. In Confessions of a Recovering Engineer, I described such transit systems as a “charitable overlay” of our dysfunctional, auto-based approach. They are promoted as a “green alternative”—an environmentally benign way to transport to and from an environmentally destructive development pattern—and sold to drivers as a way to theoretically convince the driver in front of them to take the bus or train.

It’s the commuter model that I reject. I reject it in all its forms, both auto and transit. That puts me outside of the dominant binary dialogue on transportation projects, which has consensus on very few things when it comes to transportation, but they do agree on this: America needs to spend a lot of money, ridiculous sums of money, moving people from the expanding edge of cities to and from their center. Again, I reject that consensus. 

My opposition to this consensus mindset is foundational to why I opposed the president’s infrastructure bill and the bipartisan compromise that came out of it. Again, you can read the marketing brochures from Team Blue and see that the infrastructure bill was about things like complete streets, sidewalks, transit, and green infrastructure. And you can read the marketing brochure from Team Red and see that the infrastructure bill was about highways, bridges, and good rural roads. 

The reality is that almost all of our transportation investments go to support commuters and, by extension, the proliferation of the development pattern that accompanies the commuting lifestyle.

By funding transportation the way that we do (large projects funneled through top-down, centralized systems), we crowd out the many modest, but far more productive projects, that local governments should be doing. 

And because large projects statistically have greater overruns and delays, the crowding-out happens not only on the front end, but even more so on the back end, when desperate local governments are forced to cut corners and lower costs in other areas to make good on their commitment to the One Big Project. For the Southwest Light Rail Project, this means “all the partners will come together in search of a grand bargain,” a compromise where every local government is stretched to contribute from funds that could be better used elsewhere.

Residents will be given a chance to complain, but they are given no real choice in the matter. This is the funding approach on the table, the only game in town, so to speak. Might as well resign yourself to being part of Team Red or Team Blue.

Or Team Strong Towns, because there is a third option to the consensus dysfunction of supporting the commuter lifestyle and everything that goes with it. There is growing recognition that the answer to our problems is not going to be found in the next transportation appropriation but in a bottom-up effort to improve our neighborhoods, one block at a time.

Just in the past week, two thought leaders, from two very different places, made statements projecting that new consensus. I am so grateful for their leadership.

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