Monday, July 7, 2014

False Dichotomies

Because we're American and apparently stupid, every discussion within the public sphere and virtual town hall/rabble rallies that are online comment sections is distilled into two, often false, choices.  Apparently we like things black and white.  Right and wrong.  My side is right.  Your side is wrong.  When the reality is there are many ways, often better when further examining with nuance and a creative eye.

Take for example two pieces of news this week.  First, Texas GOP is backing away from policies supporting public money to build private toll roads.  Then this morning Diane Rehm had a panel discussion similar infrastructure problems / infrastructure funding problems.  The panel understood and conveyed the issues as if there are only two sides:  either you generate revenue via new taxes/tolls or you don't build or repair roads.  At the bottom of the article you get a vague sense of that from the two gubernatorial planks.  One says they'll raise more money (for maybe more of the same?  We don't know).  The other says the magical fairy dust (presumably of more debt) will keep us truckin'.

These false dichotomies tend to occur as civilization sheds one skin for another.  People are still too hung up on past models.  I imagine this is how the Catholic Church might have seen the emerging reformation: "do we punish these people with new and more tithes or ignore their gripes entirely?"  The key word in there is of course the root of reformation, reform.  Those in charge often fail to see it coming because they're too set in their ways to adapt with changing needs and circumstance.  Such is the thesis of Barbara Tuchman's book.

This isn't a raise money vs cut spending problem, although there might be some nuance therein.  It is that precise debate that obscures the real problem and solution.  What are we designing, financing, and building, and is it generating the greatest possible return on our public investment?  Considering half of TxDOT's budget goes to debt service, I'd say we're not doing a terribly good job of that at the moment.

The false simple choice debate also obscures another issue, whether public infrastructure is a public good.  One side says, "Yes!" emphatically.  The other side very well might presume it is best achieved and cared for entirely through private investment, but are unable to reconcile the privatization mantra from the public adherence to their entitlement of free roads.

I see infrastructure as a public good, when it is designed and built appropriately to maximize both the public and private good.  Unfortunately, we've gone off the deep end building something that is and ultimately will fail while projecting future growth will somehow save everything as we run faster and faster on the ponzi scheme hamster wheel.  When you over-build certain kinds of infrastructure (we have a habit of overbuilding every single kind of infrastructure in Dallas from streetcars to rail to light rail to highways) it is no longer a public good but a public burden.  It stretches private land use so thin that we can support the amount of infrastructure we've built.  More of the same only exacerbates the problem.

Worse politically, is the expectation that the Regionalism! approach that is sprawling towards Oklahoma will somehow continue to be willing to bail out the failing areas they cannibalized from.  The erosion of the ponzi starts at the center and slowly works its way outwards.
The other big news story to my mind was the Bexar Street development in South Dallas.  The debate I'm seeing emerge is also the wrong one.  Some seem to be saying it's too much money shoveled into an area.  Others might say, it takes a lot of money, time, and investment to revitalize impoverished areas.  The bigger issue at hand is appropriate uses in appropriate places.

Every subsidized, affordable housing development in the world will attract the desperate to their hallways.  They always have.  That doesn't make them successful.  In fact, more often than not, they're pernicious.  Because the indigent are moving in because they have fewer to no better options doesn't give them access to markets, skills, transit, and everything else they need.

We tried to create a top down affordable housing/mixed use neighborhood in an area that will never be able to support the kind of retail square footage that was allotted.  Never.  The area is an extreme edge, a border vacuum.  Almost three-quarters of a 1-mile radius around the area will and always will be floodplain.  Where will retail traffic come from?  Retail needs energy.  You create it at nodes, at convergence points in networks.  It needs to be the center of gravity, where the commercial component is appropriately in balance with transportation accessibility and for lack of a better term, gravitational pull.

I don't necessarily blame the effort, but rather the execution.  It was inappropriately sited for the scale of what was proposed.  Malcolm X and MLK would've probably been a better place to start.  If the land doesn't work from there, start radiating outward until it does.