Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Highway Trust Fund and Local Control: Why? Just...Why?

I am not one to automatically reject contrarian views--this blog is, in large part, a collection of contrarian musings and polemics. But recent calls to disinvest or abandon the highway trust fund, and federal funding of transportation, in general (here and here), are a bit too cheeky for their own good, and end up parroting the same confused, pseudo-libertarian policies that many urbanist commentators eagerly embrace. The basic argument is that federal gas taxes, and federal transportation spending generally, is perversely geared towards the irresponsible growth of fiscally unsustainable transport systems (primarily through sprawl encouraging highway expansions). The proposed solution is to get the federal government out of the transportation policy and taxation business, in general, and decentralize such decision making to states and local government because they know best how to prioritize projects and are also more likely to give better support to bicycle and pedestrian advocates.

There are quite a few issues here but I want to highlight two issues that immediately jumped out to me: the invocation of "subsidiarity", by calling upon the ghost of Jane Jacobs even, and how such views always flirt with the "local trap"; second, such arguments show an ignorance of the role the federal government has historically played and currently influences, guides, and legitimizes urban and regional planning.

The Everpresent Local Trap

Fiscal sustainability aside (this is an apt observation and there is desperate need for budgetary reform), the notion that states and local municipalities should be responsible for funding and prioritizing projects because they happen to "know better" what their needs are fetishizes scale. In a now-classic piece, Mark Purcell talks about the dangers of professing essentialist political or moral qualities to scale.

The first issue with such arguments of radical decentralization and "local" control is the hard task of defining what is "local" in a rigorous way. So you decentralize transport funding to the state level, is it now the job of the state to play the role the federal government currently does and add a variety of strings and restrictions to access to that money, thus dictating what priorities "local" governments should have in regards to their own growth? Is the local now the state? The region? The county? The municipality? Not that such definitions matter too much, the federal government dictates at what scales funding and planning is issued to in different ways and state governments would conceivably do the same, but a more radical conception of local control challenges the notion of state control over these priorities. In other words, I am curious, what makes you think the state, as opposed to federal or even local level is an appropriate scale of such policy?

A second issue arises around the sloppy essentialism of calls for local control. By essentialism, I mean the assumption that "local" control is somehow more efficient, just, or effective than federal control of such funding. For example, the idea that bike and ped activists stand to gain from the decentralization of such control is not supported by evidence, but on the idea that somehow state legislatures are somehow more rational than federal executive offices or congress. While it is not hard to be a more functional institution than congress right now, the glee with which some state governments willingly let themselves be captured by interested parties (in particular fracking interests, some stories here and here).

Additionally, such fetishized notions of scale ignore the violent histories that come to actually define the "local" in many areas. From the genocide of indigenous peoples to the rise of sundown towns, de jure and de facto segregation, discriminatory housing policy, and environmental racism, the definition of place and the construction of the local is often built upon systemic violence and exclusion. This is not to say that all calls for decentralized control will inevitably descend into parochialism, but to not recognize the very real violent history of claims of "local" control and "states' rights", especially around issues of urban and regional planning, is too cavalier in dismissing history and all-too-current issues of cries for "local" control as excuses for the exclusion of the poor, persons of color, and queer folks.

The Feds and "mandates" to plan

My second critique of such calls of radical decentralization of transport funding authority is that such calls either ignore or fundamentally misread the importance of the federal government in the history of urban and regional planning. Succinctly, we would not have wide-ranging planning, or conceivably even a field/profession of urban planning, without the federal government. The federal government's role in this rests in two fields: mandating planning in exchange for funding; and providing support for planning to municipalities through technical assistance and regulatory assistance.

Yes, the federal government may have incorporated terrible incentives in their transportation funding schemes, but the federal government also required that in order for states and municipalities to gain access to such funding that they must show explicitly what they plan on doing with such funding by creating plans. Even within the context of the mandate to plan the federal government was, and remains, quite sensitive to local priorities as set forth by plans. Urbanists love to decry the terrible abuses of mid-20th century urban renewal as examples of federal overreach and modernistic overzealousness while conveniently forgetting that actual urban renewal plans and implementation were all determined at the local scale. What the federal government did have a huge influence over in these schemes is that they actually required plans, in the first place, as opposed to simply handing over pots of money to development corporations or not participate in urban development at all.

This is an incredibly common thread in US urban planning history. The federal government has a pot of money that is available for some issue and local and state governments ask for funding and, in turn, the federal government requires that these municipalities have a plan so that the federal government knows what they will do with the money. If not directly linked to available funding, federal regulations have also required states and municipalities to provide a variety of reports and plans in response to the violation of federal regulations. Of course, the EPA and the Clean Water and Air acts are probably the best examples of such regulation spurring further monitoring and planning at the local and state level. In fact, one could argue that the entire field of environmental planning would not currently exist were it not for such legislation.

It also goes without saying that pretty much any attention to racial, gender, national origin, or sexual orientation discrimination in housing and education is almost entirely due to the federal government. As ineffective as it may be in meeting its goals, HUD and the courts have been central to the opening up of housing markets to marginalized groups and leading arguments for expanding the supply of affordable housing and housing, in general. Again, history and current events, lead us to the conclusion that decoupling major infrastructure funding from federal oversight increases the likelihood of local regulatory capture, removes many anti-discrimination protections including social and environmental impact assessments, and continued mandates to plan and strengthen the legitimacy of urban and regional planning as essential public services.

What is the goal here?

Finally, I would ask such proponents of radical decentralization just what exactly are there goals and to ask more explicitly how decentralization actually addresses them? If fiscal sustainability of state DOTs is the goal, then decentralization may be one of many potential policy responses, but if you are concerned about getting people out of their cars, growth control, increased use of active transportation etc. then I am hardpressed to see how decentralization at all helps. It is telling that the greatest encouragement of regional planning in the past 60 years has not been the growing popularity of cities like Portland that brag about their urban growth boundaries, but the Sustainable Communities Initiative lead by HUD, EPA, and DOT to, again, mandate that regions plan collectively for the issues facing them in the future. This grant, which incidentally METRO got rejected for twice due to its inability or unwillingness to seriously tackle the issue of fair housing in the region, has the potential to steer regional development in many areas in positive ways unimaginable a decade ago. If states or local municipalities had such interest in encouraging such policies, then they would have done so long ago. Let's leave the dangerous essentialism of local control behind us and think about better ways to reform and work within a system of federalism that has actually been pretty effective at institutionalizing planning and moving us forward.


Michael Andersen said...

Honored to provoke!

Ideological preface: I wouldn't self-identify as pseudo- so much as quasi- or, better still, post-. I'm trying to be a left-liberal who's libertarian-informed, or something like that. Also, I wouldn't describe my particular political agenda as "getting people out of their cars" but helping people out of their cars. I think our cities lock people in cars against their will and hurt everybody, especially poor people, by doing so. That's where I'm coming from.

That said, I think you got square hits on all the pressure points in my argument.

Let me try to summarize yours, as I understand it. Obviously I'm sacrificing a lot of nuance here, but please correct me where I go over the line:

1) The local trap

1a) You can't just say "local is good" because WTF is "local" except a slippery slope down to "me and my friends."

1b) State governments are corrupt - generally speaking, more corrupt than the federal government.

1c) Subsidiarity is a dubious policymaking strategy because of the catastrophic failure of U.S. states to protect human rights in a bunch of important contexts.

2) The honorable achievements of the federal government

2a) Multilayered government leads to documentation and transparency and thereby makes our (usually) beloved "public planning process" possible.

2b) State and municipal governments carried out the perverse incentives of the federal government in the mid-20th Century and they maybe liked it.

2c) The federal government has had a bunch of good effects on state and municipal policy: fair housing laws, the Civil Rights Acts and the Clean Air/Clean Water Acts.

3) The lack of evidence that the proposal is actually going to be any better than what we have

3a) There is no evidence that decentralizing transportation infrastructure funding is actually going to be any better than what we have.

3b) The Sustainable Communities Initiative, in particular, is extremely good and effective.

Michael Andersen said...

My replies to these points:

1a) Good point, and I agree. But I was arguing for something pretty specific: state-level funding. See 1c below.

1b) Both the state and federal governments are more corrupt than I would like them to be. If I had to guess, I would say that state governments are a little more corrupt these days, but substantially more effective these days at responding legislatively to obvious problems. So pick your poison.

1c) I don't question the horror of "states' rights." But in my understanding, subsidiarity does not mean "local is good." It means "don't go up a layer of government unless you have to, because statistically speaking, institutions are better at detecting and addressing problems when there are fewer layers between the decision-makers and the affected constituents." Human rights failures are fundamentally global in nature. Misplaced infrastructure funding priorities are not; auto-dependence anywhere is not a threat to transportation everywhere.

2a) Good point. I guess there's some sort of a Laffer-type curve where more process for any given question is good for a while and then becomes counterproductive.

2b) I agree that state and municipal governments helped bulldoze good places for bad reasons. Would they have done so with such ease and in such number without being rewarded by a somewhat well-meaning but reckless federal government for doing so? My claim is that the wreckage would have been smaller if smaller institutions had been writing the checks. As you note, I have no evidence.

2c) I agree that the federal government has done and continues to do a lot of good things. My argument is not against the existence of the federal government, or against all federal regulation/funding of urban planning.

3a) What is the goal here? OK, now let's get local. I see TriMet dramatically overspending on capital relative to operations, due partly to decisions by both the FTA about what is and isn't worthy of investment. I see the obviously ridiculous CRC plan that nearly obliterated Hayden Island and a bunch of central Vancouver, explicitly because it had been structured to maximize federal grants. When I drove through Longview last week I saw the vast, empty freeway interchange that the state transportation department persuaded local leaders to build there in order to make room for the cars that were projected, so freight trucks wouldn't ever be stuck in traffic; the projected cars never appeared. When I was home in Toledo for the 4th, my friend drove us beneath a new 400-foot-tall freeway bridge that looms over the ruined and mostly abandoned downtown; the city is decrepit, demolishing huge shopping malls and movie theaters to turn them into empty fields but continuing to build roads, roads, roads to reach the suburbs not even because there's any congestion (there is none whatsoever) but because the checks keep coming. I guess you could call this "fiscal unsustainability" but my perception is that it's madness. My goal is to steer us away from this madness.

3b) The Sustainable Cities Initiative seems great and all but I feel like that "60 years" thing is a pretty stiff claim there.

In conclusion, the core of my argument isn't that I want more spending on transit, biking and walking transportation (though obviously I do) but that I have a belief, based mostly on my anecdotal observation of the workings of government, that smaller institutions tend to be, though they are certainly not always, less stupid than larger ones.

Michael Andersen said...

And one final clarification: my problem with the road-building madness is not just that we are lighting piles of money on fire and that the smoke from that fire is going to be partly responsible for mass planetary extinction (though this is true). It's also that we could be using that money for the kinds of transportation that actually do help cities.

Charles Marohn of Strong Towns said...

Totally disagree with the premise, arguments and conclusions of this piece. The author his misquoted, misrepresented and misstated our work and then used that uninformed verbage to make some bizarre statements and conclusions. If we are to be quoted, then quote us directly. We certainly welcome a productive exchange of ideas, but this is not one.

MplsJaromir said...

Bravo, love this piece. I grow weary of reductionist logic that tough town guys use.