If Maine's Sam Smith were as well-known as Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity, America would be a vastly better place, with a lot more compassion, a lot more decency, a lot more fun, and a whole lot more good food.
A wry combination of I.F. Stone, Will Rogers, George Seldes, E. B. White, along with a dash of Molly Ivins and Dorothy Parker, Smith is America's unknown national treasure of punditry, an essayist unafraid to think original thoughts and habitually deft at offending the guardians of the stale conventional wisdom -- of every stripe -- even while those stale thoughts are still being treated as penetrating insights from the "think" tank denizens.
For more than 50 years, using only his wit and his pen as his weapons. Smith lived and wrote in Washington, D.C., and he went into battle for a better America daily, practicing what Orwell called the hardest thing in the world: seeing what is right in front of your nose.
OregonPEN is proud to reprint this exceptionally timely essay, by kind permission of the man who should get a White House nod as "America's Prose Laureate" but who is far more likely to be left off the guest list entirely for being an unrepentant and recidivist truth teller extraordinaire.
One of the sad things about the ethnic conflict that has increasingly defined our land is the lack of movements that produce change rather than merely more anger. While the victims of such things as police brutality have more than enough reason to express this anger, that doesn't mean the anger will produce results by itself.
America is in serious danger because of our continued reliance on 18th Century voting methods.
Thanks to our "first past the post" election laws that only allow voters to express one choice in the ballot box, there is a significant chance that a grossly unqualified narcissist, Donald J. Trump, will be the Republican Party nominee for President in 2016. And, thanks to the same rickety election methods -- coupled with Electoral College, which creates a strong bias in favor of GOP candidates, allowing them to win the election despite losing the popular vote -- nominee Trump will be a serious threat to win the White House.
Rob Richie, longtime Executive Director of the invaluable organization "Fairvote.org" (formerly "Center for Voting and Democracy"), shows how our failure to let voters vote by ranking their choices is winnowing the GOP field to Trump's advantage.
OregonPEN readers who want to better understand how RCV (ranked choice voting) works can find sample elections or even create and experiment with their own at the Fairvote site.
Below Richie’s essay is a round-by-round breakdown of how the GOP nomination fight would change if GOP voters could have ranked their choices instead of being restricted to just on. Based on surveys of 1,000 GOP and independent voters, the survey shows just how different election results are when voters can rank their choices instead of being limited to just one.
This fact is especially important for Oregon, where the Oregon Constitution in Article II already expressly permits use of ranked choice voting:
Section 16. Election by plurality; proportional representation. In all elections authorized by this constitution until otherwise provided by law, the person or persons receiving the highest number of votes shall be declared elected, but provision may be made by law for elections by equal proportional representation of all the voters for every office which is filled by the election of two or more persons whose official duties, rights and powers are equal and concurrent. Every qualified elector resident in his precinct and registered as may be required by law, may vote for one person under the title for each office. Provision may be made by law for the voter’s direct or indirect expression of his first, second or additional choices among the candidates for any office. For an office which is filled by the election of one person it may be required by law that the person elected shall be the final choice of a majority of the electors voting for candidates for that office. These principles may be applied by law to nominations by political parties and organizations.
Without an Instant Runoff, Trump Favored to Win GOP Nomination
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St. Peter should send Scalia's final destination to an arbitration panel run by all the consumers he booted out of the courthouse
Many different aspects of Justice Scalia's legacy on the Supreme Court have been discussed extensively since his death, but one important issue has largely escaped attention: his outsized role in promoting the use of forced arbitration in consumer, employment and a wide range of other types of contracts. Fine print forced arbitration clauses bar consumers and workers from going to court, but require them to go into a corporate-designed private dispute resolution system where they are forbidden to be a part of a class action. As the New York Times set forth in a series of remarkably thorough and well-researched stories, forced arbitration has allowed corporations to break the law and get away with it in a wide variety of settings.
Below is an insightful essay by the publisher of Governing magazine, reprinted with the author's kind permission.
Although the limited effectiveness of the proposal considered (effect of hiking marginal tax rates for high earners and giving the money to bottom-fifth households) mainly just shows that particular idea to be a Samuelson straw man (there are many more powerful, effective ways we could raise taxes rather than trying to do so by a hike in the ordinary income marginal rate -- a tax that few in Mitt Romney's set pay at all), Funkhouser's larger point is still right on target:
Trying to fight inequality by direct attack on the haves to give to the have-nots is a poor strategy when there are so many more effective lines of attack available in every city and suburb, starting with doing the elementary basic tasks of governance better.
We must start by recognizing that America is beset with hidden taxes -- costs and fees that aren't called taxes but that actually are, because they come at the expense of the kinds of public goods that should be provided through taxation. The archetype of this is the "lack of transit" tax, a tremendous burden that is disguised as a "free market" outcome.
A Better Way to Attack Inequality Than Redistributing Wealth
Consumer Financial Protection Bureau director Richard Cordray is far too smart to come out and say what CFPB's real mission is, but it boils down to one thing:
Undoing the poisonous pro-corporate, anti-American, anti-Constitutional legacy of the late Justice Antonin Scalia, the self-styled "originalist" who was actually a radical, a judicial version of the Biblical creationists who insist, against all evidence, on a particular, "original" meaning of words spoken long ago by people who had entirely different meanings for those words.
Just like the creationists who labor long to make the meanings of the words produce the result they deem pre-ordained, Scalia labored at length to justify his bizarre, duplicitous jurisprudence where he claimed to be subservient to the legislative bodies but then created, out of the whole cloth, his unique rules for interpreting their work, rules that, surprise!, were fabulously congenial to a corporatist view of America where fictitious persons could have religious views that trumped neutral government regulations, but actual flesh-and-blood Native Americans could not.
There's a story that many of the people at Richard Nixon's funeral thought they had accidentally gone to the wrong funeral when they heard the eulogies for him, so sainted were the descriptions of the guest of honor at the ceremony. That is what is happening to Scalia now as the corporate press and corporate law firms sing the praises of this of this profoundly bigoted and destructive man who did so much to deliver America to its enemies in the suites.
Oregon has fallen for the ethanol scam just as hard as Iowa, with far less excuse. The so-called "Clean Fuels Bill" in Oregon is larded up with fantasy -- like the fantasy of something for nothing, which is the basic proposition of biofuels, or agrofuels as they are more correctly known (since fossil fuels are biofuels as well).
Chemical engineer Robert Rapier has worked tirelessly to sort fact from fiction about "biofuels," especially in massive hurricane of hype that surrounds "cellulosic" ethanol, sometimes referred to as "advanced biofuels."
With a last name like that, Rapier could be excused for trying to slash through the bunk with humor and sarcasm, but what he tends to do is even more powerful -- he doesn't use snark at all -- instead, he simply recalls the promises and projections and compares them, one by one, demolishing the hypesters with their own words.
Ten years ago a visionary named Vinod Khosla gave a presentation called Biofuels: Think Outside the Barrel. It seems to have disappeared from his Khosla Ventures website, but you can find an archived version here. In that presentation Mr. Khosla outlined his vision for biofuels. He projected that ethanol produced from biomass – aka “cellulosic ethanol” – would scale up rapidly. From zero commercial production in 2006, Khosla foresaw the first 100 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol hitting the market in 2008 (see Slide 78), ramping rapidly to 2.5 billion gallons in 2011, 14.6 billion gallons in 2015, and ultimately 173 billion gallons per year by 2030. Combined with corn ethanol production, he believed cellulosic ethanol could totally end U.S. dependence on petroleum for transportation fuel – but he needed to get the government on board to foot some costs.
One more from the outstanding organization, Strong Towns (StrongTowns.org) -- an insightful interview with an original thinker.
Chuck Marohn (CM): Hey everybody, this is Chuck Marohn. [My guest] is a professor of Urban Planning at UCLA, the author of the book The High Cost of Free Parking. I've got on the podcast today special guest Donald Shoup. Professor Shoup, welcome to the podcast.
Antonin Scalia, the most avid partisan politician in the U.S. Supreme Court’s history – and the justice who took the greatest pains to pretend otherwise – died today, creating a small window of hope. Hope that President Barack Obama, the least avid politician to rise to the White House, will find the mettle needed to nominate and see confirmed a nominee who will help the court escape the black hole of faux “originalism” that Scalia championed. Scalia’s patented originalism was what he cited whenever it gave him the outcome he desired, and could be abandoned without a care whenever it would have meant limiting corporate power or standing up for the rights of real Americans – workers and consumers – rather than the rich and powerful.
Appointed by Ronald Reagan, Scalia disgraced the court for decades with his rabid homophobia, his love of capital punishment, and his adamant refusal to even attempt to justify the appointment of the loser of the 2000 presidential election to the White House, a judicial coup without parallel in American history.
“Get over it” was Scalia’s only response to questions about inserting the court into a process where it had no business. In a very real sense, the Bush Administration failure that allowed the September 11 attacks and the deaths of hundreds of thousands in the Middle East can be laid at the feet of Scalia, whose partisan fever produced the appointment of George W. Bush, the least-qualified individual to ever hold the presidency.
Scalia promoted an arbitrary view of the Constitution that he claimed was “originalism” but was actually just a very un-original method of picking and choosing those parts of the Constitution he liked to get the results he wanted, ignoring them when convenient.
There is no basis in the Constitution for the notorious Citizens United decision that led to the complete destruction of any limits on corporate capture of the political process in the United States. Indeed, if anything, the Framers of the Constitution were more suspicious of corporate power than Bernie Sanders. Real citizens today – as opposed to the fictitious corporate citizens who have been endowed with enormous powers by Scalia and his fellow travelers on the court – should recall that the Framers rebelled against Crown corporations more than against England and Parliament. But, thanks in large part to Scalia’s convenient commitment to his supposed “originalism,” his tenure on the bench is marked almost entirely by the rise in power of corporations and the loss of power by real Americans.
So boundless was Scalia’s contempt for actual Americans that he even helped invent, out of the whole cloth, the idea that companies and corporations – which are themselves just assets – can have religious beliefs. The Hobby Lobby decision, in which the Court’s “conservative” majority found that the Constitution gave these assets a right to challenge laws on the basis of the company’s “religious beliefs.” Somehow, fictional persons called corporations were now so real that they could have a soul that would be offended if forced to provide female employees with access to insurance coverage that included birth control.
Some of the greatest harm done by Scalia’s opinions is in the area of consumer and employment law, where Scalia led the court into an era of slavish devotion to the needs and wants of big business and utter hostility to real Americans facing off against corporations. Scalia and his fellow corporatists on the bench have left almost no stone unturned in their efforts to bar the courthouse door to real Americans by blessing and promoting the use of forced arbitration and rendering class actions an endangered species. In the recent Italian Colors decision, Scalia voted to uphold an arbitration provision with a class-action ban that had the effect of serving to totally nullify federal anti-trust law protections.
Naturally, Scalia’s hostility to the rights of sexual minorities and his bitter war against women being allowed to make their own reproductive choices were ascribed to his Catholicism. But Scalia’s love for the death penalty, and his insistence that there was no constitutional problem with a state executing an innocent person, shows that his religious views were not determining his political choices. That is, there was never a need to resort to Scalia’s Catholicism to understand his opinions; to predict Scalia’s positions, you needed only to know if there was a real American pitted against an arm of the military-industrial complex.
Scalia was happy to join a majority finding that the First Amendment prevented states from criminalizing flag-burning, because that one case, cited again and again by his supporters, is such a rare exception to the rule that Scalia always sided with power, and especially corporate power. By claiming that he was only doing what the Constitution required, Scalia fooled a huge number of people, but mostly those who were happy that the Constitution always seemed to anticipate and providentially provide precisely what the US Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and Koch Industries would have advised, had they been there.
This is the text of a talk by Chuck Marohn, founder and director of Strong Towns, who was featured in OregonPEN last week as well. This talk is lightly edited to remove about eight minutes of unrelated material at the beginning and a short digression in the middle.
As the Oregon Legislature is meeting and battling in an era of austerity, Chuck Marohn's insight is crucial - he explains, in clear, plain English, just why we are so broke. And he indeed offers a remedy. His analogy of our road system to a river system is brilliant, because it gives us a successful flood control model to emulate; and Oregon's Growth Management Act gives us a means to do it. This talk should be required for every public official or candidate in Oregon.
I want to talk a little bit about congestion – traffic congestion, the scourge of our transportation system, the bane of our economy: traffic congestion.
Cars are fantastic.
They are truly amazing things, virtually mobile luxury palaces, capable of conveying people around at high speed, in perfect shirtsleeve comfort regardless of the weather, with astounding reliability for such complicated machines.
We love cars.
And that's why we can't seem to come to grips with the fact that they killing us.
Our infatuation -- obsession, really -- with cars is a root cause or major contributor to nearly every wicked problem we face.
Cars are not just the biggest threat to America -- they are the threat delivered. With a vengeance.
Cars -- or, more precisely, our heedless love of cars leading to a complete reordering of society to accommodate them -- are responsible not just for a huge share of the climate chaos that may well lead to the downfall of human civilization, they are the cause of the immediate violent deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans every decades, and that's before you even consider the long-term health consequences of turning bipedal primates into an obese populace racked by heart disease and diabetes.
Cars spewing lead fumes poisoned the world for decades, and that experiment with mass lead poisoning seems to have been responsible for a huge share of the violent crime surge that we suffered in Post-War America, a surge now mysteriously receding according to the pundit class. Of course the mystery must remain a mystery always because revealing the truth would mean discussing that the oil companies and the great industrial giants in Detroit knew that lead was and is supremely toxic and that leaded gasoline was doing to Americans what the mercury did to hat makers in Lewis Carroll's time, making them insane, or mad as hatters.
The wondrous nature of the cars themselves -- and a lifetime of ceaseless conditioning from the propaganda ministry of Madison Avenue -- is why they are such a problem.
Satan never tempts you with spinach -- Satan tempts with luxury goods and promises of power. And cars are all that and more.
This issue of OregonPEN focuses on a third plank of the OregonPEN agenda -- building Strong Towns, which is an idea stolen from a budding powerhouse organization called just that. Strong Towns is probably the most important and subversive environmental group in the country right now, because it hardly ever talks environmental problems per se and, therefore, avoids the MEGO response (my eyes glaze over) that environmental problems immediately trigger for a car-worshiping nation.
Instead, the Strong Towns approach is to talk to people about people problems. Only slowly, subtly, do people realize that our irrationality about cars is at the heart of the problem.
And so many of our problems start with the problem that we are bankrupting ourselves by playing the highway-fueled Growth Ponzi Scheme, where we let the sprawl lobby dictate the shape and character of all the places where we live, which has turned a huge share of this giant nation that was once noted for its infinite variety and distinct regional flavors into a broke, charmless, characterless, unhealthy, polluted mess, inhabited by a nation of people who are falling down on every ranking of social health and well-being, but who by God brought the great God Auto to the world.
The discussions below involve Chuck Marohn, a recovering engineer and planner and others who have joined in the Strong Towns discussion.
The mission of OregonPEN is to empower and engage Oregonians in making Oregon better. Spreading the Strong Towns message and helping people bring that thinking to Salem and all over Oregon is one of the most useful ways of doing it.
(CM is Chuck Marohn, founder of Strong Towns; RQ is Rachel Quednau, Strong Towns Communications Director; lightly edited for clarity).
RQ: Hi everyone, welcome to the Strong Towns Podcast. This week is no new roads week and we are focusing on transportation funding. Specifically, we are advocating that we spend far less money on building new road. I had Chuck here to talk a little bit about that. Chuck, I’m curious since I’m still a little bit new to Strong Towns, I know that we’ve been talking about no new roads for quite a long time and we’ve been using this hashtag for a while. When did this campaign start in your mind?
CM: Actually way back in, I want to say it was 2011. I was at a Next Gen Summit which is a collection of, like, younger CNU [Congress for New Urbanism] people. This was in South Beach, Miami, and everybody, kind of the price of admission to go, everybody had to give a presentation about something they were passionate about. One of the Pecha Kucha kind of style, so 20 slides, 20 seconds each. Ian Rasmussen got up, he was actually right before me and he got up and he did his, and the title of his was No New Roads.
And he started off, and I remember the place just exploded when he was done because it was such a fantastic presentation. He got up and the first thing he said is look at Google Earth right now, look at all the roads that are there. That’s all there’s ever going to be! And, and then he went to make the case why, you know, basically we’re out of money, we can’t maintain all this stuff. Yes, there might be some tweaking here and there, and you know a lot of the, the uproar as the discussion went on was about kind of the, uh, yeah absolutely no new roads versus hey, we’re done building this system and let’s, let’s move on.
And so he laid out a really good case that not only could America grow from 300 million people to multiple billions of people without adding a single new road, but that we would be far better off doing so. And ever since that point the notion No New Roads has kind of melded with a lot of my thinking and been just a very natural fit for us here.
RQ: What would you say the goal of this week is, Chuck?
CM: Really, just to raise a certain level of awareness. You know we, we all go about our day and those of us that are really actively involved or really passionate about these kind of issues, there’s a natural I think intellectual progression towards -- I’m going to use the word compromise but compromise is probably not it -- just a pragmatic, “okay, we’re not going to get everything we want but we’ve gotta make this system work and make it better” and whatever your idea of making it work is, there’s a notion that we may have to absorb or accept a little bit of really bad, but we’ll do that in order to make things better. And our point is that no, we really can’t accept a lot more bad. In fact the way we go about doing things, in a bipartisan way, is pretty bad and pretty destructive. We don’t have a lot of resources left to fix this system and we are kind of wasting the last bit that we have propping it up.
And in a sense trying to, in the most optimistic way, transition to something else. And what we really need to be doing is spending those resources on the transition, on doing something different. And if we envision an America where we’re no longer building new roads, in other words, if we declare victory and say, yep, the interstate system as it was envisioned was done 30 plus years ago, it’s now ready to move on to something else, we can start to ask a whole bunch of more sophisticated questions that will get us to a much better place as a country.
RQ: Yeah, I’m glad you brought up that trade off because that’s something that we’re going to talk more about this week and have a discussion on our discussion forum -- kind of the fact that when there’s a transportation bill on the table, whether it’s statewide or national or local, it’s usually got a whole bunch of new road funding and then a couple bones thrown to the bike/walk people, a new walking trail here or this one street is going to have a bike lane on it. So you should support this bill because it has this one great thing for you. Well, 90 percent of the funding or more is for new roads.
CM: And I get that trade off, I mean I get how seductive that is. The problem is though that not only are we funding this on a broad scale so we’re spending all this money on adding you know a 10th and a 12th lane to highways to try to alleviate congestion where we clearly have decades of research showing us that that doesn’t do anything about congestion.
But by continuing the mentality that we have, the mentality that essentially every street, every neighborhood, every radius, everything needs to be designed around the very quick movement of automobiles and that somehow that equals our prosperity is doing a disservice to people that no amount or recreational trail funding or complete streets funding is ever going to make up for.
So [comparing Strong Towns to] the advocates for bike-ped and the advocates for transit, we have our hearts in the same place, but we just have radically different visions for how to go about accomplishing some of those things.
RQ: Definitely. In Wisconsin, I’m not going to talk about this too much because I’ll get too angry and worked up about it, but we’re funding this huge highway extension project right in the middle of Milwaukee and it’s just, I mean from everything I can see, it literally looks like they’re just moving the highway a couple feet to the left and maybe adding a lane. I just don’t understand how this is going to do anything good for anyone.
CM: It’s amazing because one of the things that I want to make that gets through this week and that I’m highlighting in a post I wrote for today, is the way we finance this stuff and the fact that a lot of the equations and things that came out of the early automobile era is stuff that’s still with us today.
So if you look at Milwaukee and Minneapolis, when we built a highway, Highway 94 between Milwaukee and Minneapolis, it made both cities really, really, a lot wealthier. Now all of a sudden goods can flow back and forth, commerce can happen back and forth, a lot of things happened that changed our economy to the positive when we did that. The problem is that you know running that highway through the middle of the city adding you know an extra lane on each side, these are marginal improvements but marginal improvements at just enormous cost and we’ve kind of enshrined the original improvements. It’s almost like, let me use an analogy. Let’s say you go on a weight loss program and, and the first week you lose three or four pounds because you do all the easy stuff, you stop drinking pop, you get a little bit more active, maybe you get a little bit dehydrated and lose some water. And then you project out, you know, at this pace I’m going to lose 100 pounds in half a year, right? Even though we know it doesn’t work that way. Right, your body reacts and everything starts to change.
From a highway building standpoint we essentially did the same thing. We said look, we’re going to connect Milwaukee and Minneapolis and we’re going to see all this growth and then wow, if we just continue to spend that much on transportation we’ll continue to see that much growth and economic expansion every time we do a project. And that is enshrined in the way we actually go about funding these things even though, not only are we past diminishing returns, but we’re far, far into negative returns on a lot of this stuff. And the way we go about prioritizing things just hasn’t caught up.
RQ: And so many people don’t realize that, so I hope this week is good education for a lot of people and a good way to get the conversation going. So let’s talk about the new federal funding transportation bill. What happened there and what are the repercussions going to be?
CM: Repercussions, probably none for a while, in the sense that this is a five-year bill and it’s a five-year bill with a completely bizarre and uncorrelated spending approach. We, we at Strong Towns advocate for as many market forces as we can bring to bear to help us make good spending decisions. So when it comes to transportation the principle of user pays, and user pays as close to the actual demand as possible, really brings sound economics into transportation funding. The, the new transportation bill that was approved December 1st of last year goes in the exact opposite direction. We replaced pension smoothing, which is the way we funding the transportation bill the year prior, pension smoothing being the ability or corporations to defer funding pensions -- so you have pension funds that only 80 percent funded at the corporate level -- to be able to underfund those even more that lets you book additional profits and then those additional profits you pay taxes on. Those taxes go to fund transportation. That was the way we closed the gap in 2014. In 2015 and now for the next five years we’ve done things like, “let’s sell some oil from the strategic petroleum reserve and use that money to pay for transportation.” Let’s not allow banks to keep money at the Federal Reserve at an inflated rate of interest; let’s have them pay a market rate of interest and we’ll take that difference and use that for transportation. Let’s take some of the false profits that the Federal Reserve is able to book on all of those toxic assets they have, because they don’t have to mark to market, let’s take those kind of illusionary profits and transfer those over to the U.S. Treasury to pay for transportation. This is the approach that we’ve taken now. So we have taken a system that is completely non-responsive to the actual demand that people have and funded it in a way that is so opaque and obscure that it essentially seems like free money, right?
Like we’re just getting money out of nowhere and we can just continue to build transportation and there’s no cost to it. We’ve entered what is in my mind a toxic crazyland, and I would be shocked if we get five years through this funding bill and not have major, major shortfalls just because of the fact that we’ve tied this funding system now to some of the craziest and most volatile ways of finance that we could possibly imagine. This is stuff, even in my craziest dreams I never would have considered a few years back.
RQ: Were there any changes to gas tax in this bill?
CM: (Laughs.) Well changes in gas tax would involve a handful of things. First it would involve us, actually, you know, having some notion that people who use transportation should pay for it or that there should be, you know, some rough correlation, as rough as the gas tax is between what you’re using and what you’re paying for. And of course we, we don’t want anything like that. And so, no. There’s no change to the gas tax.
CM: There’s no real talk of changing the gas tax. The gas tax, from the White House standpoint, from the congressional standpoint, is a political non-starter. Both the leaders in Congress and the President have come out and said, years and years ago, that the gas tax is a non-starter, it’s not going to be changed, there’s no support for doing it, we’re against it. And so things like a mileage tax, increased use of toll roads, things where you would actually pay for what you use, those are so far away that we can’t even talk about a modest increase to the gas tax. So yeah, we’re, like I said, we’re in crazyland in terms of the ways we’re choosing to finance this stuff and there’s not, there won’t be, any talk for years now of doing anything different.
RQ: This is frustrating. Good thing we’re focusing on this topic! So this week we have chosen to focus on three different states that have different transportation issues going on, both some good and some bad.
Tuesday we’re talking about Texas, which of course, is a classic example and the one that gets pointed to a lot when discussion of highway expansion and overbuilding of roads comes up. We have a very strong Strong Towns contingent in Texas, so I did an interview of Kevin Shepherd of Verdunity, we have Patrick Kennedy, Hayden Walker, James Lamas, so we’ve a great group of people who’ve written a lot about highway expansion in Texas and how that’s not really benefitting anyone. I think James is going to talk about, uh, some transportation, public transportation funding. So there’s, there’s some good in Texas but, uh, mostly some pretty depressing road funding projects going on there.
CM: Yeah, the fact that we’re going to take three days here and focus on states I think is really important because I think that’s where the action has shifted, right? The federal government has in a sense punted. There’s no major shift in policy. I mean we’re not funding things directly. We’ve just said we’re going to find crazy ways to fund the current system. So the action and really the stress kind of shifts to the states, and Texas is a really good example of a state struggling to make that shift. Because on one hand they are doing the most egregious things imaginable in terms of funding an auto-only, auto-centric, just fight congestion in the craziest ways you can imagine type of approach. Yet there’s a lot of innovation happening in Texas and there’s a lot of people talking about doing things differently, so amidst some of the worst stuff you’re going to see in the country there’s also some of the best, and that’s why I think Texas is kind of a fun place to delve into a little bit.
RQ: Yeah, and Kevin Shepard made the point when I talked to him that, from his perspective at least, Texas is still in the growth phase potentially, or at least it’s not quite in the decline phase yet as a state, and so if they were able to figure out all this stuff and make a big shift now they could prevent some of the decline that will happen later. Whether they can actually do that is very questionable, but we’ll keep an eye on that one.
CM: Well a couple, a couple years ago Texas actually crossed over into the kind of point of no return in my mind where more than half their budget now goes to debt service, more than half their transportation budget, their gas tax.
CM: So you got a state like New Jersey where every penny of gas tax they collect goes to pay debt on old projects. So it’s not funding any new maintenance, it’s not funding anything new, it’s just paying for old projects and there’s no way to recover from that. I mean, you’re done, you’re done.
And Texas -- I want to say three years ago -- crossed over the 50 percent mark so you, you’re now finding a majority of what you’re doing with debt, and there’s no way to really pay off that debt except to take on more debt because you have so many miles of road to maintain.
I think Kevin is right in a sense. I mean, Texas is very much in the illusion of wealth phase of the Ponzi scheme. So there would be a chance for them to put some of that illusion into stuff that is really going to make them better off. On a grand scale that doesn’t seem likely to happen in Texas. My biggest hope for Texas is that some cities, Austin, Dallas, Houston, have some really good stuff going on. There’re some suburbs of Dallas that I’ve been in, like Garland, that are trying to do so really good things. But some of these places are able to shift their approach and really be an example so that when things start to go bad, other places can start to copy.
RQ: So Wednesday, we’re focusing on Minnesota. Do you want to talk a little bit about that? We have some, some other people who have written pieces for Wednesday but what do you see as the state of transportation funding in Minnesota?
CM: Well, in Minnesota we’re still trying to make the grand compromise. We’re still trying to figure out how we do what so many states have done, which is get the road building people in the same room with the bike/ped/transit people and say “we can give you guys all of what you want if we just work together.” And that essentially has been the approach the last couple of legislative sessions and we’ve gotten really, really close to getting that done.
I wrote a big piece last year about how I opposed the bill and that approach in specific. And you know it’s going to come back up again this year. We’ve got a big budget surplus now. Minnesota has one of the most volatile systems of finance in the country just in terms of statewide so we tend to, when times are good, have a lot of surplus, and when times are bad, have big deficits. We’ve got a lot of volatility in the way we fund the state. So right now we’ve got a big surplus and everybody says “well, let’s spend that surplus, and we should spend it largely on transportation.” And so it’s likely that this session we’re going to see some money thrown that way. Whether it’s part of a big grand compromise or not is yet to be seen. But, you know everybody’s probably going to get a little bit of what they want.
RQ: Okay. On Thursday we’re going to focus on Washington State. We tried to get some good variety here geographically. So Washington was especially interesting to me because I went to school in Washington State. I happened to be on the eastern side of the state, a pretty rural area. But I visited Seattle a fair amount, and it always seemed to me, this transit and walkability heaven, for me at least, you could take the light rail and the bus a lot of places. There’s a lot of very walkable areas in downtown Seattle. It has this reputation of being very hippy, green, environmental, lots of people out biking.
But the posts that you guys will read on Thursday paint a pretty different picture. We’ve talked to some people who are really active in this area for advocacy groups and things like that, and they are very skeptical about the funding going on in Washington for roads right now. They just passed a huge transportation bill, and the bulk of it is going to new roads, unfortunately. Only a fraction is dedicated to the maintenance or transit or anything like that. So that’s an interesting one for me.
There’s also, of course, whenever you talk about Washington you have to mention the tunnel boring machine that got stuck under Seattle. I think it’s made a tiny bit of progress since we last talked about it on our web site but that’s a pretty laughable example of failed transportation projects. Chuck, do you want to talk a little bit about that?
CM: Yeah, you know as we talked about this week, we wanted to take the opportunity to point out some of the boondoggles, because there are plenty -- the bridges to nowhere. You know, and this rendition, this stuck Bertha, this huge boring machine stuck under the ground, trying to fight congestion in a beautiful city that really should embrace congestion in many ways.
So, you know, there’s those boondoggles, but I think we wanted to make sure and get beyond that because that’s kind of . . . we’re going to do a little bit of that but this issue is more than just kind of the cheap pointing out of boondoggles.
A place, like Seattle and like Washington State in general, which is doing a lot of the right things and having a lot of the right conversations. I interviewed their DOT head a while back [Oregon’s Lynn Peterson, who was just terminated as WashDOT head by the state senate’s refusal to confirm her – ed.] and she’s a brilliant person and has a lot of great visions for how to do things differently.
I think people in Washington State like to think of themselves as progressive, like to think of themselves as kind of cutting edge and unique. Yet when you step back and you look at it, not only are they very, very ordinary, not only are they doing pretty much the same thing that everybody else is in the same way with the same results, but they seem unable to really make a big shift, any kind of substantive, noticeable change.
I know we asked Mayor Mike McGinn to come on and talk a little bit. He’s a bike advocate from the trenches, I mean someone who is not an advocate from a political standpoint as much as he is “this is what I do, I bike, I walk, I’ve always done it this way, here’s why” and it makes sense. You know have someone like that give us a perspective on these compromises that are being made and what some of the tradeoffs actually are for people living in a city and how we can do things so much better with a lot less money and a lot different focus.
RQ: Yeah, I’m glad you brought up kind of the city issue because I think that road funding can be polarizing for urban areas versus rural areas because roads are often seen as this thing that connects the rural communities to everything else. And so they really need the new roads, right? Do you have any thoughts on that, that tension?
CM: Yeah, I do and I actually, I live in a small town. Two and a half hours north of Minneapolis-St. Paul, and I’m just keenly aware that the economy here would not function without the highway between here and Minneapolis. It just wouldn’t.
Yet when I step back and look at where we’re spending our money it’s not on that highway, it’s on all the junk around it. It’s on the frontage roads, the interchanges, so we get the new big box store. It’s on the highway through the middle of the city, which not only destroys our tax base but does nothing to change the travel time between here and major urban centers.
I think rural areas have been sold a huge bill of goods over the years, which is this: your prosperity is not necessarily tied to your ability to get to the next city but your ability to get to the McDonald’s or the Wal-Mart in 30 seconds less time. And you know that is an incredibly distorted trade off. Because, while the one is critical to the economy, the other one is way more expensive and has literally destroyed the economy of rural areas. So, I’m just keenly aware that the more money we waste in our cities, changing -- basically forcing people to drive -- changing the local economies, the less money we’re ultimately going to have to connect our places. And the connection between places, the roads that we’re building, that’s the critical infrastructure. For rural areas, when we get to triage -- what we see in states that have actually gotten to this point -- the rural areas are the ones that don’t get the road projects. You know the urban areas do, the suburbs do and the far, remote rural areas don’t, and I think that that is a really bad tradeoff that rural areas should be more keenly aware of.
RQ: Definitely. That’s a good point too, that often when we look at highways that go through like the heart of a city we talk about urban renewal and how highways really ruined urban centers by dividing cities, but they have also torn apart and ruined the downtowns in small towns just as much as they have in cities.
CM: Devastating. I mean there’s no more destructive force for small town America then the state departments of transportation. I mean they literally have destroyed rural economies nationwide and we become so accustomed to it. I’m here in this small town, we’re looking right now at a $9 million highway replacement project to put back this massive wide stroad through the middle of the city even though there isn’t the traffic, and we have 9,000 cars a day. It hardly justifies two lane and we’re putting back five lanes!
We’ve done the analysis and shown how this highway has destroyed the economy, not only displaced jobs to neighboring cities but also destroyed the tax base along it. Yet the city and the DOT and the county are all completely paralyzed and feel an absolute necessity from a traffic congestion standpoint to put back exactly what’s there, five lanes.
You know, the more we do those things in rural areas, the less money there is to actually connect our city to the next important city, and at the end of the day that’s where the cuts are going to come. Because no one’s going to show up to that public hearing, because there isn’t going to be one; the roads are just going to deteriorate and we’re just going to be told there’s no money to fix it. So there’s an urban component to this and we’re going to focus on that and talk about it. There’s also a big rural component to this, and a lot of the tradeoffs that rural areas are given is “hey, support our suburban roads and we’ll give you your rural road.” When you actually run the math we’re talking about a tiny fraction of what is needed, and I don’t see a way for rural areas to fix this in the current paradigm.
RQ: Okay. So in addition to our three days focused on different states we’ve also got some different things happening this week. I shared a really cool mapping tool Monday morning and I really encourage everyone to check it out. This is awesome, um, Josh McCarty from Urban 3 showed it to us. Basically you can go on this really easy to use web site and just look up what the funding breakdown is for your state in terms of how much are they spending on new road, how much are they spending on maintenance of roads, how much are they spending on transit? You can also look at every state in the United States and kind of compare these things. It’s really cool. I don’t know, have you had a chance to look at it Chuck?
CM: Yeah, it’s mind blowing, really.
RQ: Yeah, definitely everyone should check that out. We are also sharing an excerpt from a new report that was put out by US PIRG and Frontier Group about some big highway projects that they kind of use as examples to illustrate how ridiculous our transportation funding situation is in the U.S.
And we’ll have a webinar to go along with this “No New Roads” topic that will be going on next week. So those are some of the things to look forward to this week. Chuck, do you have anything else to add about this topic?
CM: No, I just, I want to make sure that people are helping us out with this one a little bit too. I mean we’ve got a discussion that we’re trying to get started and have people take part in that. The no new roads thing is one of these kind of black and white hashtags, yet I’m going to freely acknowledge that these are not black and white issues. And because of that I really encourage people to take part in the conversation, to take the stuff that we are sharing with you and share it with others to you know use this as a way to have a more sophisticated conversation in your community about the tradeoffs between funding the current system in the current way we’re doing it and what you would actually like your community to look like. These are not black and white issues and if there’s one thing about Strong Towns it’s that we do kind of embrace the messy nuance and complexity that is building a successful, strong place. So I encourage people to share all this and get involved and do what you can to build a strong town and share this message with others.
(CM is Chuck Marohn, founder of Strong Towns. SH is Susan Handy, his guest.)
CM: Hey, everybody. This is Chuck Marohn with Strong Towns. Welcome back to the Strong Towns podcast. We spend a lot of money in this country fighting congestion, and we do it often in the name of relieving things like greenhouse gas emissions, and reducing travel time, and increasing economic growth and development. I have, on the line with me today, Susan Handy. She is with the University of California in Davis, and she is one of the co-authors of a very interesting report that talks about induced demand. Susan, welcome to the podcast.
SH: Thank you for having me.
CM: Hey, can you just talk a little bit about induced demand? What is it, and why are you studying it?
SH: Well, actually, the term I prefer to use is induced travel. So if you think about demand as being kind of -- the underlying demand that people have to get from one place to another -- that’s one thing, and what we’re talking about here is the effect that highway expansion -- either expanding an existing highway, building a new highway -- the impact that that has on the amount of travel that people do. In other words, does the expanded capacity let people satisfy more of that underlying demand?
CM: Sure, sure.
SH: So that’s kind of a fine point, but an important distinction. So usually we’re now talking about induced travel as the phenomenon in question.
CM: Okay. So people have, essentially, when people have a certain amount of demand that can either be filled or unfilled by the system –
CM: And you’re talking about whether the system has the capacity to fill every trip everybody would want to make?
SH: Right, exactly.
CM: Okay. So, talk a little bit about the relationship between the projects that we do to relieve congestion and the impact that that has on induced travel.
SH: Yeah, so the question is, when we build a new highway, we are often hoping that that’s going to help relieve congestion. That congestion relief is one of the benefits that we use to justify those investments in expanding the highway system.
So the question is, does it work? You know, if we expand the highway system, do we actually reduce congestion. So there’s been a number of studies out there looking at this question, and you should know that I haven’t done a study of this type myself but my colleague, Marlin Bornette and I, reviewed the studies that other people had done on behalf of the California Air Resources Board, and we pulled out the more rigorous studies and then summarized what they were saying about the impacts of adding capacity to the highway system.
CM: Talk a little bit about the efforts of greenhouse gas reduction. I’ve seen a lot of programs and, at the federal level and certainly in California, a lot of the programs that fund transportation improvements are funding them under the guise of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. We reduce congestion, and then because traffic can flow more smoothly, people aren’t just sitting there stuck in traffic. The theory is, we have a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Is that how things actually turn out?
SH: Well, not so exactly. So, yeah, this is all tied together. The idea is, you expand capacity, you reduce congestion. By reducing congestion, and moving traffic more smoothly, at more moderate speeds, you will reduce emissions, not only of greenhouse gases, but air pollutants.
So, that last piece is technically true. If traffic is moving more smoothly, we know that, and at speeds that are above stop and go conditions, but people are not speeding. So if you’re in the 50 to 60 mile an hour range, that tends to be where emissions are minimized.
Okay, so that part of the equation is pretty firmly and scientifically established. So the big question is does expanding the capacity in some way -- projects like improvements to traffic signal timing that are designed to smooth the flow of traffic – do projects like that actually have any impact on congestion? So that’s where the studies that we reviewed come in.
And it’s not an easy thing to study, to really sort out, what’s happening with real world data. So the studies have used a number of different methods, and what we found is a very consistent finding that after the capacity of the system has been expanded, after you add lanes or build a new facility, there is an increase in the amount of driving in the system that is a result of that increase in capacity.
So, uh, in the short term, you may get, if you increase capacity by 10 percent, you get a 3 to 6 percent increase in traffic, so you do get some congestion reduction benefits, but not as much as you would think, because of this 3 to 6 percent induced traffic. But the problem then is in the long run, you may get back to exactly where you started.
So a 10 percent increase in capacity can lead to, in some studies it’s shown a 10 percent increase in the amount of vehicle travel over some 5 to 10-year period of time. In other words, after some time, there’s absolutely no congestion reduction benefit to that capacity.
CM: So in a sense, we’re going in the opposite direction of what the policy intention is?
SH: Yes. Yeah. Now it’s not to say that there are no benefits from adding that capacity, because you are accommodating more travel, but in terms of reducing congestion, and thus reducing emissions, you’re not getting that benefit.
And of course, not only are you not reducing congestion, which would get you some reduction in emissions, you’re increasing the total amount of travel, which is increasing emissions. So that the net benefit to emissions goes away because of this induced travel effect.
CM: I, I think as engineers, there’s been a certain sense, for a long time now that we could build our way out of congestion. And budget issues are obviously forcing us to rethink that, but, let’s say, that budget was not an issue. Is that an idea that has just not been tested, or is that an idea that’s been tested, and been found to simply not be true?
SH: Yeah, well, you look back 100 years, and our cities were pretty darn congested, and we were talking about expanding, capacity in order to reduce congestion. For the last 50, 60 years, we’ve been investing vast sums of money in our highway system, in an effort, at least in part to reduce congestion and where are we today?
Would anybody say our congestion is any less than it was back when we started this whole effort? So I think, regardless of the money issue, which of course is a huge issue, there is a growing understanding, but certainly not a consensus in the transportation field that in fact, expanding capacity is not going to get us out of this congestion problem.
And, you know, underlying that, it’s a very simple economic principle of supply and demand. Essentially when we expand the system, we’re expanding the capacity, the supply, we are making it cheaper for people to drive from a time standpoint. And then what do people do if you make a product cheaper?
CM: Yeah, they use more. Right.
SH: They’re going to consume more. So that’s what happens. It gets easier to drive from Point A to Point B, with the new highway, so people are going to choose to do that more often. Maybe they’ll shift from a much closer destination to a farther destination. They may shift from taking the bus to driving instead. Over the longer term, having that new highway there is going to affect what kind of development happens where, which could then lead to more travel in that area. So you add capacity, you reduce the price, people consume more. And that’s the simple economic principle underlying this induced travel effect.
CM: Essentially, if I would not have taken a trip before because the road was congested, now I’ll take that trip because I can do it at a low cost to my time because there’s no congestion delay.
CM: And I join with all my neighbors in making that rational decision, and then, bam, the congestion’s back, right?
SH: Yeah, exactly. So, as I said, we now have more travel, and that could be a good thing from the standpoint of the economy or society. But we’re not getting rid of congestion, and we are adding to the environmental costs.
CM: We see all the time where political people, but also policy people, will make these really strong arguments that adding capacity and investing in essentially more roads and more highway capacity will increase employment and economic activity. In fact, the American Society of Civil Engineers has put out some reports that draw very definite correlations between economic growth and expansion of highway capacity. Your findings seem to suggest otherwise.
SH: Well again it’s a very hard thing to definitively determine, right, because there’s so many different things that go on, but the studies we reviewed mostly concluded that, if you look at the entire region, the investments in highway capacity were not contributing to overall economic growth.
It is a little bit of a chicken and an egg question. I mean, where are you going to be investing in highway capacity? Well, it’s where economic growth is happening and congestion is getting worse, which then creates this political pressure to expand the system. So, I think that one’s not been entirely decided. But there certainly is evidence both ways, including evidence that the investments in the highway system are not driving growth at a regional scale.
CM: You actually suggest -- and this is the first time I’ve seen this suggested in a research paper like this -- but you actually suggest that there are places where we’ve reduced capacity, where we’ve actually seen economic benefits from that.
SH: Well, yeah, it does appear so. I mean, a place like San Francisco, where there were two significant stretches of freeway that were removed following the Loma Prieta Earthquake back in 1989. It took many years after that to remove them, but they were. They had been damaged and the earthquake was the rationale for taking them out. And, there was a lot of outcry that this was just going to make traffic come to a complete standstill in the city. But what the city did was invest in some improvements to surface streets that would both handle some of that traffic, but also be more of an amenity for the community and it’s been a total success. Traffic did not come to a standstill. It’s exactly the reverse of adding capacity: when you change the capacity of the system, people adjust, in one way or another.
So traffic did not get measurably worse, and some lovely parts of the community were created as a part of this effort, bringing more sort of economic activity to these parts of the city. Europe has done a lot more of this than we have. There are a few other examples of removing freeways in the U.S., but not a whole lot. But think about European cities, where they close down streets in the core of the city to cars, and it’s completely tied in to economic development kinds of efforts, within those cities. And they are certainly thriving. You know of course, there, people are much more ready and willing to jump on a streetcar or get on a bus or their bike to go downtown than in the U.S., so not clear that it would work so successfully here. But the point being that it can work. And sometimes communities are a lot better off with less capacity for cars than they would be with more capacity for cars.
CM: Have, have we crossed over a point -- I’m going to ask this question, and you can take it however you want. Have we crossed over a point of diminishing returns for highway construction, and not only that, but is there a, a point where, when you force a society to experience mobility in one dimension and take away the ability to get around, say by foot or by bike, do you change an economy in a way where you do experience those diminishing returns at some point?
SH: Yeah, I don’t know that. I think about it in terms of diminishing returns so much. I mean maybe it’s diminishing returns to quality of life, where if we continue to invest in the highway system, we’re simply perpetuating this dependence on driving as our way to get around to get to the places we need to get to.
So there is a lot of shift in thinking in the transportation planning fields, at least, about the need to invest in alternatives to driving, whether that’s transit or walking and biking, and that, in fact, is the solution to congestion. So the solution is not to eliminate or reduce congestion, because we’ve been trying that for a long time and not succeeding, but rather the solution to congestion is to give people alternatives. So that you can choose not to be stuck in traffic in your car. So, and then, I think in addition to that, as you noted already, is the money problem. We simply don’t have the kind of money it would take to expand the system enough to reduce congestion even in the short term, and we know it wouldn’t work in the long-term anyway.
But we also have a space problem. I mean, where would you, how can we continue to expand the system in existing metropolitan areas? There just simply isn’t room, and a place like California, you know, LA, they managed to cram in a couple more lanes on the 405 recently, but it was a hugely expensive and really disruptive effort to try and squeeze in a little more capacity interrogatory expedited hearing space that we have. So I think those sorts of constraints are another reason for us to be moving away from this traditional focus on expanding the, the highway system, as the solution to our transportation problems.
CM: Is there a parallel takeaway here for local officials? For, your local officials and advocates in cities, not necessarily at the state or the federal level. Is there a takeaway for them, from your research?
SH: Yeah, I think so. Well I think they already get it a lot more than at the state level. I mean state departments of transportation, it’s been their job for a century or thereabouts to build and maintain the state highway system. They own and operate the highways, the freeways. That’s never been a responsibility of local government.
So local governments have always put priority on local streets. So I think they’ve, they sort of get it better from the start I guess. And in fact, they’ve been resisting highway expansions through their jurisdiction in many parts of the U.S. going back to the 1950s and 1960s.
So I think they get it already. I think they get that adding to the capacity is going to be a negative thing for their communities in most cases. And this isn’t to say that there are no new highways that should be built, or we should not be fixing some of these horrible interchanges that we have. I think we’ve just got to be strategic about where we invest our limited funding to really deal with particular problems in the system, and we need to be realistic about what it is we’re getting out of that. But it may not have -- it may be more about a safety fix, rather than any possibility of reducing congestion.