Thursday, March 31, 2016

A Correction and an Origin Story

The local efforts to shape the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department's 30 Crossing project to better suit the needs of tomorrow's economy instead of last century's got some national attention this week via The Atlantic. The author found me by way of this here blog, and we got to spend some time together walking along, under, and over Interstates 30 and 630 in Little Rock and North Little Rock. I gave her as much background info as I could with all the various interconnected entities and people involved, including the overlap between today's fight and the one against I-630 back in the 70s and 80s, and hopefully the continued overlap when the 630 Fight 2.0 develops over the next couple of years. I sent her Tom Fennell's plans and offered to help her contact others on the ground here, and I believe she did hear from multiple people.

But, as always happens when complex stories run headlong into a publication's limited time and space, the richness got condensed, in this case with the local voice being represented solely by Rep. Warwick Sabin and me. Standing alone, that's understandable. However, the story incorrectly credited me with creating the Improve 30 Crossing Facebook group that has served so well as a gathering space for those interested in what's happening with Interstate 30. That group functions like a 21st century single-issue Greek forum where are all welcome to discuss and learn (so long as you don't loudly regurgitate the Department's dogma.) To correct the information presented in The Atlantic article, I definitely did not create the group. Starre Haas gets all the credit for that. 

In fact, I have to give Starre a lot of the credit for getting me involved in this effort in the first place. But before I get to that, I'd like to go back a little further, to the mid-1990s...
Like many kids who grew up with Bill Clinton as governor, I attended AEGIS camps during junior high and high school. For the uninitiated, AEGIS was a series of a few dozen free summer educational experiences for students from across Arkansas. There were theater camps, language immersion camps, computer programming camps, music, robotics, biology... if you name a field of study, it probably had a camp. I attended a French day camp, Project GO (geological orientation) and Project CAVES (I have no idea what that acronym stood for, but it consisted of three weeks devoted to exploring and learning about caves deep in the Ozark Mountains). All three were amazing experiences. Imagine crawling around in the mud while learning how to map a cave with the closest thing to a spelunking celebrity that exists or floating the Buffalo with the State Geologist who could name every little stratum of rock on the bluffs, then having some laid back classroom time at night, and finally just hanging out with all the other weird kids from across the state who thought nerd camp sounded like a fun way to spend part of our summers. The teachers liked it too- they earned in-service hours, took home a small stipend, and got to share their passions with interested students outside the bounds of the normal all-testing-all-the-time regime of the regular school year. Plus, many of the camps served as economic development initiatives for small communities. I doubt anyone thought about this role consciously, but we had to eat and sleep somewhere, and many of the camps involved local activities paid for by the state. Plus, at least in my case, I've been going back to many of the places I first learned about through AEGIS for years. Despite the huge variety and high quality of the programs, I think the entire AEGIS budget was still less than $700,000 per year. Suffice it to say, there was almost nothing negative. I'd be hard pressed to come up with a more efficient investment in the state's future than to provide memorable learning experiences for countless students from all walks of life that enabled them to make connections with like-minded people and fall in love with physical locales that we may not have known about otherwise.

So why am I rambling on about summer camp for nerds in the 80s and 90s on a transportation blog, and what in the world does this have to do with someone named Starre Haas? Well, let's take another quick detour...

I grew up in Morrilton, Conway County, Arkansas (also known as the Center of the Universe, though the further we get away from Sheriff Marlon Hawkins' political machinations, the less apt that description seems to be). By the time I got to high school the local community college had reached a point at which many of its courses could be transferred basically anywhere, so a lot of my friends were taking Comp I or Western Civ at UACCM during their senior year, earning dual high school and college credit, and transferring those credits to whatever college they ended up attending full time the next year so they could get a little breathing room later in their schedules. Win-win for everybody. Now, I've never met a status quo I wasn't willing to question or push a bit, so during my junior year I started wondering what the logical limit of that dual credit path was. Some calls were made, Mom and I met with Norb Schedler at UCA, and the next thing we knew, I was enrolled in just one class at Morrilton High School and a full college freshman load in Conway for my senior year, with a full scholarship and absolutely no commitment to stay. (I think the only thing that kept me from getting punched by the anti-nerds during this time of my life was my sheer size and quick-ish speed on a road bike).

In all honesty, the plan after my dual-purpose year at UCA was to leave Arkansas and probably never look back. A few factors came together to conspire against that notion though: (1) I got invited to work as a counselor of sorts at Project CAVES during the summer of '99, which brought back all the feels of how the State was at least investing in its people's future in some ways despite government's other warts; (2) two of my still-favorite professors at UCA both attended Hendrix College for undergrad and both spoke warmly of it (Arkan-small moment: one of the profs was Maurice Webb, brother of LR City Director and fellow AHTD questioner Kathy Webb); (3) as another strong showing of investment in the future, the State of Arkansas enacted a scholarship program in the late 90s that paid full tuition, room, and board to any school in the state, public or private, to any in-state student who made a certain score on the ACT or SAT. Being pretty handy with a #2 pencil and a bubble sheet I made said score, so Hendrix was going to be completely free; and (4) much like my situation today, I really had no idea what I wanted to do or be when I grew up, so it was hard to justify going into a mountain of debt just to have a certain name on the diploma when a perfectly good name was available down the street for effectively no cost. So, I stayed in Arkansas.

Also in the late 1990s the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department realized that its maintenance schedule and budget were not up to the task of dealing with a rapidly deteriorating interstate highway system. They hatched a plan to raise fuel taxes a little and devote the increased revenue to paying off bonds that would cover the cost of rehabbing a lot of miles of highway. Raising user fees, rebuilding/maintaining existing roads, not really adding any new capacity that would require additional future maintenance... 'ok, that's cool' I remember thinking. It passed overwhelmingly. The weird thing was that newly-elected Governor Mike Huckabee was pushing the idea pretty hard leading up to the vote, and lots of boosters were touting how innovative the financing and construction techniques were. Admittedly, I wasn't paying too much attention to transportation policy at the time, but I do recall thinking that bragging about how we'd finally figured out how to do basic maintenance on something we chose to build years earlier was probably not something that leaders of a successful, well-oiled economy would do. In other words, I knew that having a road was not the purpose of an economy but rather just played a supporting role for said economy. To see the tv ads and the newspaper headlines though, you'd think the repaved roads were going to be the curer of all problems, even though the development and new tax base spurred by their original construction had failed to pay for their basic maintenance over time. Some small inkling of the Strong Towns message got through to me.

In conjunction with the first Interstate Rehabilitation Program, the State of Arkansas decided that it could no longer afford the summer AEGIS camps. Many moons have passed since then, but if memory serves me correctly, the total annual budget for AEGIS was less than the cost of repaving one mile of freeway in one direction. Huckabee, et al, were out in public very openly talking about how pouring some new asphalt on roads that already existed was going to make everything peachy keen in the future, but that nominal look forward didn't jive in my mind with also cutting programs like AEGIS. Then, to top it all off, the State decided that it also couldn't afford the scholarship program that sent me and many others to Hendrix, OBU, Williams Baptist, Lyon, Harding, in addition to all the public colleges and universities that the original law drafters assumed everybody would attend, so they cut the program back pretty drastically. They did honor the commitment to my class and maybe one or two behind me, but the kids I'd counseled at Project CAVES a couple of years earlier were not going to have the same incentive to stay in state that I had been fortunate enough to receive.

Then, to really hammer things home, one of the 'innovative' pieces of the Interstate Rehabilitation Program was to turn the existing concrete pavement into gravel to act as a base for a new layer of asphalt on top. That process required a machine like this to pound the concrete into submission:
A 'Rubblizer' from http://www.resonantmachines.com
My college dorm room was within close earshot of I-40 in Conway, and that beast was loud. And dusty. And they ran it at night to avoid disrupting traffic too much. So, suffice it to say, I had a near constant aural reminder of the state's priorities and lack of foresight during a time of day when there weren't many other distractions.

Ok, this is taking a lot longer than I thought it would. Let's fast forward a bit...
I wrote an opinion piece back in 2012 for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette basically wishing a movement into existence to oppose that November's vote to raise the statewide general sales tax to eventually pay for much of the 30 Crossing project. I had lived through the 1998 Interstate Rehab Program vote, witnessed a subsequent one from afar, and still had seen no acknowledgement at any level of state government that maybe, just maybe our development patterns and the infrastructure requirements to support them should pay for themselves without the need to raise taxes again. If the promises of increased prosperity from increasingly expensive highway projects was't actually penciling out in the real world, maybe we should reevaluate the entire way we build things and the kinds of physical development we subsidize with out public expenditures. But alas, no movement came to be. The opposition to the constitutional amendment in 2012 was mild, especially compared to the all-hands-on-deck media blitz put on by the highway lobby (remember Governor Mike Beebe telling you from your tv to vote to Move Arkansas Forward?). I got pretty disillusioned by the whole thing and put this blog to bed later that year before I'd given it much of a chance to start making a difference. The amendment passed easily, some other really bad stuff sailed through the legislature and across the Governor's desk, and by 2015 my wife and I were seriously considering moving to a place that had its priorities in a more economically sustainable alignment than Arkansas's seemed to be.

But then, Starre Haas and her husband invited my wife and me to dinner last July. At the time I knew that 30 Crossing was percolating, and that the proposed plan to be presented in the fall was likely to be a disaster. I had heard from a few folks doing yeoman's work in the citizen involvement planning meetings that the Department was ignoring the good comments and just falling back on their the tried and true old fashioned ideas. Resistance seemed futile to me though, so I really wasn't devoting any effort to it. But over dinner at Starre's someone brought up downtown or interstates or parking or something else that I had a strong opinion on, and the conversation went from there. Like most of us, they hadn't really questioned the assumption that highways must always be expanded when congestion reaches some point. That's just the way of the world. We explained our views though, and by the end of the evening we had two solid converts. I still thought it wouldn't go anywhere, but at least I had one more data point suggesting that people could be swayed on the issue. It truly was inspirational. Not that my words were well chosen or anything, but that what I've long seen as obvious really did make sense outside the cloistered world of people who read transportation blogs for fun. It was inspirational to see two open minded people confront a new idea that called into question a foundational assumption, wrestle with it for a bit, and then see the value in it in a pretty short period of time. We left that night with a loose agreement that I would at least restart this blog (which I did, sort of) and that we'd all keep our eyes and ears open for opportunities to push the conversation out into the broader public.

We had dinner again in September; the Department unleashed its 10-lane monstrosity soon thereafter; and Starre formed the Facebook group. I wrote a few pointed posts about misinformation coming from the Department (which I still plan to get back to soon), and everything just sort of gelled. The group is up to nearly 1300 members now, and hopefully something a little more formal and organized will come together soon.

And the rest will be history.

To summarize: early interactions with the State of Arkansas's investments in education were formative experiences for me; the priorities communicated through those investments motivated me to develop a stronger commitment to this state than I might have otherwise; those programs and others were slashed at the same time the state was pulling more money out of the economy to rebuild infrastructure that wasn't paying for itself; later in life I tried to do a little something to nudge those priorities into a different order, but nothing much came of it; one dinner with Starre Haas convinced me to rekindle my interest and jump into the fight.

So, if there's a sappy moral to the story, I'd say it's this: go to those dinners; meet that person for a cup of coffee; have those conversations; send that email. You never know what might come out of it, and you never know how a little idea might grow into something much bigger. That's really all this movement is at this point- people sharing ideas and using them to keep moving forward.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Lessons From Successful Cities

If you haven't read Eleven Signs a City Will Succeed or How American is Putting Itself Back Together, do so now. Great articles that echo my thoughts on the fact that cities can & do work. When they have strong & visionary leadership along with people willing to talk to each other things can get done. It is in cities that people put aside partisanship & ivory tower philosophy to make their community a better place to live. In Congress too often obstinacy & brinksmanship stand in the way of service. Not in cities. Wanting to be a mayor makes sense to me, wanting to be a congressman, not so much.