We'll hear a lot of voices speaking about transportation funding in Minnesota this year as lawmakers make this debate a priority at the Capitol.
But Chuck Marohn still thinks a big facet is missing from the transportation debate: reforming the way we think about how to spend any money already raised.
"When we're talking about transportation, we often treat it in one dimension: It's just roads and bridges and transit," he said on The Daily Circuit Tuesday. "Transportation investments are economic developments; they are community development. They have a social implication, a cultural implication, political implications, but we just fund them out of one silo. We miss all of that nuance."
He wrote about it on the website of the group he founded, Strong Towns. While transportation officials cite the town of Baxter as a classic case of transportation helping a town, Marohn said he thinks it actually showcases everything wrong with current funding: a Ponzi scheme where new roads create strips of big-box national chains that bring instant gratification and long-term pain:
The local government got a generation of robust growth, a period of time where cash was plentiful, stuff was shiny and new and everyone involved (including me, to a degree) looked like a genius as a result. That time has passed and Baxter now finds itself in the second phase of the suburban Ponzi scheme: the hanging-on phase. Taxes are going up, debt is going up and the old way of doing projects is getting harder and harder to pull off. It's becoming really difficult to maintain all this stuff without the new growth providing easy cash; there just isn't enough tax base and what's there just isn't financially productive enough.
Of course, the next phase is decline, when deferred maintenance and accumulated debt gives the city few alternatives to respond when these chains start to fail or move on to a shinier and better place. Detroit is future. Ferguson is future. Those places once thought they had it figured out as well, that massive transportation investments would bring them continual prosperity. They were responding to short-term incentives, just like we are here.
Marohn said we need to have a third option on the table: