I enjoy a good public policy debate as much as anyone (ok, to be honest, I seem to enjoy them more than most), but I have been getting frustrated lately about arguing about minutiae while we (and that is an inclusive we) seem to lose sight of the bigger picture.
In the past few days, I have engaged in conversations about the Vehicle Mile Tax (VMT) vs. our current system of gas taxes, the high cost of public transportation and the game of hot potato being played with the costs of repairing or replacing the Sellwood Bridge. These are all timely and important issues to debate, but they all stem from the same root cause. And we all seem to do our best to sidle off when the conversation turns to the meta issue. As Americans we take our infrastructure for granted. We don’t seem to grok that our predecessors used their public dollars to create our infrastructure. We seem completely unwilling to invest the kind of money that would allow us to be good stewards of that infrastructure for future generations
All of our roads; roads owned by the City, the County, the State and the Federal government, are in bad shape. Decades of deprioritizing infrastructure has reduced transportation budgets, resulting in deferred maintenance which has resulted in the need for very expensive road rebuilding projects (that we don’t have the money for).
Once upon a time, during the early days of the cold war, the federal defense department took a very holistic approach to national defense. At that time, roads, education, nutrition programs, recreation and a whole slew of other services were part of the defense portfolio. The theory being that we, as Americans, could not compete with the evil empire unless our citizens were well fed, well educated and given opportunities to recharge. These priorities were as significant as making sure that the physical transportation infrastructure was strong. This wholistic budgeting philosophy started to decline in the 60’s and was completely gone by the mid-seventies. Now it may be coincidental, but the trimming down of the defense budget portfolio seems to roughly coincide with another war that was unpopular with the citizenry, but I will bypass that particular tangent.
We are very lucky in Portland that we have public transportation system that is still well funded enough to add streetcars and light rail lines, as well as continue to add frequent service bus lines. Ridership is increasing (which many, including myself, consider to be a very good thing), but additional ridership requires more buses and trains and since fares only make up a small percentage of TriMet’s budget, TriMet remains $4 million in the red. Things are worse in my home town of Manhattan. New Yorkers have the lowest annual average for miles driven because it is so much more efficient to get around on public transportation. But they are looking at having to raise their fares to $3. For the working poor, this could very well mean that folks can’t afford to go to work.
There are no easily solutions that can or would bring our transportation systems back up to a level where we could focus primarily on maintenance. But the longer we ignore the problem, the more the maintenance backlog increases, the more expensive the problem will become.
So we need to stop arguing about whether a VMT is more or less equitable than gas taxes, whether bicylists need to contribute to road maintenance beyond what they pay in taxes or whether hybrids, biodeisel or electric cars are the wave of the future. We need to reframe how we think about the infrastructure we take for granted and figure out some solutions before we are forced to return to a time of gravel roads (since we all now know just how much bicyclists hate gravel).