Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Grasping for Silver Bullets

Stephens Media reports that the folks at (the inconveniently-named) Move Arkansas Forward are gearing up to push for a half cent increase in the state sales tax next year that would partially fund $1.8 billion in new highway construction and expansion over the next ten years. The asphalt boosters in the state Chamber of Commerce and the Highway Commission want us to pay for a statewide grid of four lane highways and add capacity to some existing roads even though we already have one of the most extensive state highway systems in the country. And they're selling the whole scheme to us in economic development terms, so it's harder for people to question the plan without getting labeled as anti-growth Scrooges. But I'm going to try. Instead of wasting money on the same old-fashioned false hope that we can tax-and-pave our way to prosperity we should seriously consider investments we can make in Arkansas's infrastructure that will increase choice for its citizens, make its economy more efficient and resilient, strengthen its communities and the ties between them, and genuinely improve the state.

Arkansas already has more than 16,000 miles of state highways; California, the 8th largest economy in the world (right between Italy and Brazil), has only about 300 more (and California's measurement includes planned roads that they haven't even been built yet). That equates to about 29.5 linear feet of state highway per person in Arkansas and about 2 feet, four inches per person in California. Put another way, California enjoys almost $115 million worth of g.d.p. from each mile of state highway while Arkansas only manages to squeeze $6 million out per mile. Of course, there are significant geographic and demographic differences between the states that account for some of the discrepancy. California's residents are more concentrated in a handful of places and the counties and local governments are responsible for a larger share of the roads out there. Plus, each mile of California's highway system contains on average more lanes than Arkansas's. But still- it's hard to say that Arkansas suffers from a lack of roads. And to add insult to injury, the people of Arkansas already learned first-hand what can happen when we spread ourselves too thin by building roads. The state defaulted on some debts back in the 1930's stemming partially from... building too many highways. Today though it appears that our leaders think flirting with a repeat of history is a great idea. We're already carrying several hundred million dollars in bond debt that funded a bit of recent construction and maintenance, but the long-term needs of the current highway system far outstrip even the rosiest of future revenue projections. And now the tar boosters want to add $1.8 billion in more lanes to that system, lanes that will undoubtably require maintenance and repaving not too far down the road (ha ha, pun intended).

"Ahhh, simple-minded, idealistic little Timmy," say the tar spreaders, "what's your worry? Everyone knows that growth always pays for itself. Once we build these next couple billion dollars worth of roads, growth and prosperity will rain down like manna from heaven, filling the state coffers with plenty of money to continue with business as usual." If that's the case, then why are we in any debt right now while maintenance needs continue their upward trajectory? Why haven't those 16,000+ miles of previous state highway projects led to a semblance of an economically-sustainable plan for funding future projects? Why did the city of Little Rock just have to pass its own $100 million sales tax increase to pay for things like road maintenance, fire stations, and police officers when Deltic Timber's Che-sprawl Valley was supposed to pay for itself without sucking people and money out of the rest of the city? Why does Pine Bluff find itself in its current condition despite being served by a big, wide four-lane interstate highway with a top-notch bypass to boot?

According to the Stephens article, Arkansas Highway and Transportation Director Scott Bennett estimates that the $1.8 billion program could create 50,000 jobs. We need a lot more information before that number starts to make any sense at all. By my maths if they spent every cent of the money on wages alone, then each of those '50,000' workers would get only $36,000, or $3,600 per year for the 10 year life of the tax. When you factor in the fact that most of the money for highway projects goes toward materials, fuel, equipment, etc., then there's even less cash for those '50,000' workers. Where does that '50,000' number come from? Projections of jobs that will magically appear because people's driving time between towns will drop by a few seconds? I don't buy it. Tell us more so that we can be informed participants in the democratic process.

Our road- and car-centric policies of the last 70-80 years have created a system in which effectively every person in Arkansas relies on private automobiles. There are a few neighborhood pockets in some towns where people can and do go about the bulk of their daily activities on foot or bike, but for most of us a car is an absolute requirement. There are a few towns too where public transportation allows people who can't afford cars to have at least a minimum level of mobility. The wide disparity between car and transit funding though leads most of us to drive whenever possible. And the result? Every Arkansawyer is basically forced to spend a huge chunk of change to buy a car every few years; pay for license, registration, and taxes; buy fuel; and pay for maintenance and repairs. Then there are a bunch of huge costs that may be harder to accurately measure but are every bit as real: the cost of time wasted driving as our cities and towns spread further and further out; the cost of decimating our downtowns to provide places to store all of our cars; the cost of the deaths and injuries caused by car crashes; and of course the costs of building and maintaining more and more roads. Some people say that the fuel cost component will be solved by advances in technology in the near future. That's swell, but what about everything else? Doc Brown's DeLorean still had to be parked somewhere when it wasn't using its Mr. Fusion generator to travel through time.

"But little Timmy, you're out of touch with reality," say the asphalt apologists. "We're a nation and state of DRIVERS. We LOVE our cars! Cars equal FREEDOM! Arkansas is too spread out for anything except cars to ever work, so we NEED four lane highways connecting all corners. You don't honestly think we can change our ways, do you?!" Yup. I do. We were a nation and state of horse riders before we decided to dive whole-hog into cars. We were a nation and state of tap-tap-taaappping telegraphers before we adopted phones. Just about every little town had a thriving opera house before movie theaters and then televisions entered our consciousness. We used to settle differences with a duel to the death. Et cetera, et cetera. Change happens. Get over it. We can either plan and prepare for change or we can try to prop up the past for a bit longer. In the current instance that prop is going to cost roughly $1.8 billion with some very large and unfunded long-term maintenance costs tacked on for good measure.

Admittedly, it's the easiest thing in the world to sit back and criticize, especially for a blogger relaxing in a warm coffee shop. So, what about solutions? Alternatives? Proposals? First of all, I agree that cars are here to stay as an indispensable component of our transportation system. Let's maintain and invest wisely though in a way that actually contributes something and in a way we can afford. We shouldn't keep blindly piling all of our eggs into that one straining basket and expect the basket to get stronger as the load gets bigger. We don't need to spend nearly $2 billion to avoid getting stuck behind some retirees driving their RV's a little below the speed limit. It's time to start investing in choice and resiliency instead. We can have economically and socially sustainable growth without paving everything in site.

A few ideas to get things started...
1. Make our towns walkable and bike-able. The car trip not taken is the most valuable one to our economy (not to mention our health and well-being). Similar to T. Boone Pickens' tree planting advice, the best time to build a bike lane was 20 years ago; the second best time is today. Just like cars to roads, if you build a well-connected, safe, and convenient network for bikes, people will choose to ride. The same goes for walking.
2. Stop building bypasses. There aren't going to be any places left to go to if we keep bypassing them all.
3. Get honest about the real costs and benefits of different types of development. The longer our cities agree to assume the long-term maintenance costs of infrastructure in new low density development without figuring out how to pay for it, the more painful the inevitable bill is going to be. This is going to sting a little, but if we keep putting it off the needle is just going to keep getting bigger.
4. Start planning for passenger rail. Prediction: some day there will be high speed rail between Dallas and Memphis/St. Louis passing through Arkansas. Rise above the nasty partisan politics of today and look around. It's hard to deny that we will reach a point of diminishing returns with roads and air travel, probably sooner than later. Investing public dollars in passenger rail will make sense then just like investing public dollars in roads and airports makes sense today. That transition will be much easier though if we go ahead and decide where the tracks and stations are going to go right now and start to promote appropriate development in those places.
5. Develop a plan for regional transit in central and northwest Arkansas. Some work has already been done, but it's time to recognize transit as a viable and indispensable part of our transportation network instead of something we provide out of a sense of obligation to poor people. From a capacity perspective 50 people choosing to ride a bus is no different from building enough road space to handle 50 extra cars. Let's fund it as such. Spend wisely though. Vintage-looking trolleys that pose well on postcards but don't provide much actual benefit are a waste of everyone's money and just fuel the naysayers' fire.
6. Replace minimum parking requirements with maximum-parking-allowed limits and price parking appropriately. Read The High Cost of Free Parking (free paper here, or the larger book that grew out of the paper here) and see the world through a whole new lens. The 'parking problem' that seems to plague every town suddenly transforms from a lack of parking into a stifling overabundance of parking that's choking the life out.
7. Start planning to decommission our urban freeways. I-630 in Little Rock and I-30 in NLR and LR are dinosaurs of a different era that should play no part in the future of the region and state. They siphon money away, don't pay for themselves, sever neighborhoods, discourage development in the immediate area, take up valuable space, and encourage sprawl that doesn't pay for itself either. Likewise, if we absolutely must build the northern loop through Camp Robinson to connect I-430 and I-440, then let's simultaneously plan for the eventual un-building of I-40 through North Little Rock. Urban freeways do more harm than good, and the cities that realize that are going to be much better positioned moving forward than the ones that just double-down in the face of uncertainty.

Connecting rural areas of the state with active transportation is a little further out on the bell curve of what's feasible, but it's not impossible. See here and here. Of course anything over a 2-3 mile bike ride becomes a chore for most people; buses need high ridership numbers to make economic sense; and train tracks only connect some parts of the state. However, #'s 1, 2, and 3 above would start us off in the right direction. When people can realistically bike and walk in a town, then a bus stop in the middle starts to make more sense. Just look at all the tiny towns across Europe connected with high quality bus service. Heck, there's a town in Austria with fewer than 1,100 people and a subway running its full length. I don't know what the answer is for Arkansas, but I do know that the best solution is not to just keep building more roads.

That's that, for now. Who's organizing the opposition to Move Arkansas Forward's $1.8 billion tax-and-pave plan next year?

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