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The Conservative Argument for Transportation Reform in Rhode Island

The next RI governor needs to apply conservative principles to transportation.

Since Rolling Stone covered the pension restructuring policies of Gina Raimondo, there's been a healthy debate between many Rhode Islanders on the merits of her changes to state workers' pensions, and whether/how those changes fit into a conversation about societal priorities. I tend to empathize with pension 'reform' opponents like Matt Taibbi, but there's no doubt that the state has to look realistically at its finances and decide how it's going to stay solvent, and perhaps that conversation includes some changes to state workers' benefits.

What I want to do below is suggest a number of ways the state can save money and be more fiscally responsible in the realm of transportation. We should bracket our feelings about unions, pensions, taxes, Wall Street, etc., and use this discussion of statewide priorities as a time to look at where else our money goes beyond pensioners' pockets. I'm not really a libertarian penny pincher at heart, but what I've found politically-maturing about urbanism has been the way it's shown me that many problems we have aren't about underspending but over- or mis-spending, and that many problems are not about underregulation but over- or mis-regulation. I hope the Taibbi article has opened a space for a broader discussion of the budget that truly approaches all issues in a fiscally conservative way, and not just one that uses the slogan of fiscal conservatism as a bludgeon for class warfare against workers.

Stop Requiring Parking
Most municipalities require parking. This costs developers a lot of money and takes away their market freedom, It also subsidizes cars. These zoning requirements may be local laws, but gubernatorial candidates could and should advocate for statewide measures to override these them, especially since the trend is for cities and towns to remove  or reduce them.
GCPVD map of Downtown Parking Crisis

The state could also do a lot to reduce costs of parking on public property by giving state employees more market choice in their transportation decisions. If parking is going to cost $30,000 a space for expansion at the Statehouse, why have we not considered giving state employees a stipend for transportation, and letting them use that for parking, transit, biking, or walking? We seem to think that state employees' retirements are not sacred, yet their access to a parking spot is? Giving employees a choice wouldn't take anything away from them, but many employees would opt for cheaper modes of transportation, and this would ultimately allow the saved money to go back into the economy as other spending. Happier workers would mean more productive workers, without another state dollar spent.

Parking requirements undermine a lot of other state efforts around environmentalism and economic growth, so it's like chasing good money with bad when we try to correct the problems caused by them. This is decidedly un-conservative.

For more on parking reform, visit the discussion at the Cato Institute.

Start Policing Smart.
The state has a legitimate interest in curbing DUIs, but encouraging transit-oriented development would be the most fiscally sensible way to accomplish that than current efforts at education and haphazard enforcement. When I lived in Philadelphia, drunk drivers were to me an abstract boogie man-- people who I stereotyped as outsiders in society. No doubt some of this was blindness on my part, but I truly did not know anyone personally who drank and then drove in my presence, even though plenty of people I knew went out to drink. By contrast, in Rhode Island I have frequently been to gatherings where Rachel and I were the only people to leave who were not drunk driving. The missing link has to do with walkability and transit. We made the choice to wait a long time for a bus on many occasions, or to walk, but many people just won't make this decision.

Police who want to enforce DUI law have to consider the cost. DUIs are hard to prosecute and take many hours to book. Many police departments in the state choose to avoid DUIs as a focus for road safety because of this. We're talking about overtime pay and cops off the street if the departments do enforce the law, and obvious damage to people and business if they do not. By no means do I mean to say that people who want to be responsible in Rhode Island have no options, but since many of the drunk drivers I've encountered here have defied my image of criminality, and since national statistics reveal a trend of lower DUIs in transit-oriented places, the next governor has to balance reality against moralism. Especially outside universities, the state budget needs to expand bus schedules later. Weekend hours need to be reconsidered. This could really save us money on the other end in policing.

We ought to stop ticketing people for not wearing seat belts. The argument for this comes from a nanny-state belief that it's our job to take care of the healthcare costs of people who get into preventable accidents. I'm a lefty, personally. I believe in a single-payer system. But I also think that it's totally fair for us to exclude payment for medical costs that people take on by stupid decision-making. If a person wants to not wear their seat belt, fine. They should get the medical care they need if they're hurt, but they should be on the hook to pay for it. It's weird to develop an entire policing regimen based on mistaken healthcare spending priorities. Fix the priorities.

The state should stop putting its resources into seat belt enforcement, when it could be stopping more important violations, like speeding. Our blog wrote an extensive piece on speeding on Westminster Street in Providence which was co-published by Eco Rhode Island. I have yet to see meaningful action taken in my neighborhood to curb this public danger. Yet on that same street, in Hoyle Square, the state has put up a sign to blink warningly that we should "Click it or ticket". Conservatives should argue that this is a poor spending priority that wastes time and money.

Tax Land, Not Property.
Property taxes that tax the value of buildings discourage improvements, in exactly the way that a conservative would say that a higher tax on upper income people discourages innovation. The good thing for liberals is that land taxes, which tax the price of land under a building instead of the building itself, tend to lower taxes for rich and poor alike. The only people that tend to have higher taxes are those who are speculating on vacant land. Having a land tax would help us to be more progressive towards our environmental and economic justice concerns, but on conservative terms.

Fund RIPTA Better.
Yes, this is a conservative issue. A successful RIPTA takes cars off the road, and that can mean reductions in road maintenance costs. It also means we can avoid costly expansions of roads, which don't work in the long term to fix traffic anyway. Rhode Island should spend more on public transportation in order to save on its other transportation costs.

Spending more doesn't have to mean spending stupidly. We wrote on this blog about the need to consolidate some RIPTA bus routes in our neighborhood of the West Side, in order to make better service without more costs. In other places, like Kingston, Transport Providence feels that a shorter bus route between, say, URI and Point Judith instead of between Providence and Point Judith, would allow twice the service frequency for that area, connecting walkable town centers like Wakefield, Narragansett Pier, and Peacedale, and URI's campus, without extra labor or capital cost. Understanding the cost of parking could have prevented boondoggles like the expensive parking lot expansion in Wickford Junction and Warwick, and caused the state to plan with MBTA for smarter growth around transit-oriented development hubs or bike path connections to the stations from existing housing and jobs. There's a place for expansion and saving money.

Save the Farm, Without Subsidizing It.
I don't know if I'm prepared to say that we should get rid of the Rhode Island subsidies to protect farmland, but we could start planning towards their eventual elimination by better understanding what makes them necessary in the first place.

Why was it that before 1950, people had such an easy time living in walkable towns and cities, with farmland on the outer edges of those habitations, but we have had such a problem doing it more recently? Well, a lot of that is about government spending. Not all of that spending is strictly at the state level. Much is municipal, as with parking requirements in zoning, which act like a tax on transit-oriented and walkable development, and much is also from federal highway spending (we'll get to that). But when this spending rolls in--for instance, as when 295 was completed, and suddenly the surrounding areas were rezoned for higher, suburban levels of taxation--farms fell into financial trouble. Rhode Island has lost 80% of its farmland since 1945. 

Now, as liberals look at an issue like this, what they see is a place for government to come in and fix something. That's not a totally incorrect way of seeing it. But switch your focus. Conservatives could really champion smarter land use by understanding that spending projects have created a problem that spending projects were then prescribed to fix. If we want to save the farmland in the state, the short term may certainly require subsidies, but ultimately we have to get back to the root of the problem. 

Reject Highway Funds, When Appropriate.
With public pressure, Oregon started rejecting highway funding in the 1970s, and instead repurposing that money towards transit. By the '00s, Portland, Oregon had just finished up using money that could have been spent all at once on a 1970s highway project, and instead developed an enviable light rail system. The highways would have removed 1% of all the housing stock in the city, severed neighborhoods, created blight zones near exist and entrance ramps, increased pollution, and left the state or federal government on the hook to pay for upkeep as the infrastructure fell apart. The streetcars helped to spur redevelopment and growth. We can make fun of Portlandia, but the fact is that people want to live in Portland. They did not want to live there in the '70s. Providence and other cities in our state could benefit from this kind of statewide planning.

The Tea Party has rejected funds for trains at the state level. I think this was foolish, but we can still learn from them. The next governor needs to see that his or her role is to act as a guard dog for Rhode Island's federal taxpayers as well as its state ones. We should be looking to replace a lot of the awful, 1950s-oriented infrastructure we have with cheaper, leaner, more effective transportation infrastructure. This is a fiscally conservative high ground.

We need some highways. But many highway projects were expensive boondoggles that should have never happened. As those highways approach the need to be expensively replaced, we should consider highway removal.

The portions of Route 6 & 10 that are in Providence have no right to exist. They tear apart neighborhoods. They act as local collector roads for short trips, meaning they don't shuttle people quickly across long distances, as highways should. They encourage driving, when other modes could be used. And highways--especially urban highways--are some of the most expensive infrastructure that exists. The bike bridge across the Seekonk River will come to $22 million when it's completed, which conservatives would likely point to and call a huge expensive project. How much highway could be bought for that amount? Less than one mile of a four lane urban highway, if we adopt the standard $6 million per lane-mile cost of many urban highways.

Smarter development around 6 & 10 would still involve access for cars, would also create transit lanes, separated bike paths, and walking space. It would create land that could be redeveloped into adjacent businesses. It would reconnect neighborhoods by removing federal blight like the Dean Street bridge. It would restore conservative, traditionalist development patterns.

Where Does This Take Us?
In highlighting the above conservative grounds for transportation reform, I don't mean to say that we live in a utopian world that doesn't have to sometimes make spending cuts to things like pensions. Yet, to me, what was compelling about the Matt Taibbi article, and what I would like to see addressed in the gubernatorial debate is: To what extent is our discussion about fiscal conservatism excluding possibilities for other priorities in spending cuts? The greatest wisdom that conservatives have to offer is that sometimes less is more. Let's adopt that wisdom in a way that is across the board, rather than cherry picking pensions as the only issue to which it can apply.


  1. Can you explain your link between farmland and transportation reform better? Also, that 80% since 1950 number getting thrown around isn't attributable only to urban sprawsl/development. It's development and abandonment/reforestation. I'd guess that has more to do with the economics of farming, than with transportation policy.

    The Farm 2.0 report from 2010 indicates that 22% of farmland loss is from development, if I scan over it correctly. http://www.rilandtrusts.org/documents/FarmRI_2.0_Final.pdf

  2. It's probably fair to say that all of it isn't sprawl, but it's a significant part.

    My understanding is that areas in the vacinity of I-295 were reassessed for higher tax values based on their suitability to suburban development from the highway, and that this impacted the affordability of farming. Rhode Island has a bond measure from time to time to support farm retention, and while I support that, I can't help but feel that it's the left hand cleaning up after the right.

  3. 80% figure is from Eco RI, cited in both articles about URI parking expansion.

    1. I think the 80% number comes from the Farm 2.0 report as the total amount of farmland no longer in production, but as quoted by Eco RI and others, it is missing the nuances of what the land is being used for instead, such as that only 22% is attributable to "sprawl".

    2. Hmm, well like I said, I think that if you pull apart like that, you'll probably right that sprawl isn't the only contributing factor to farm loss, but it's definitely the most negative one.

      It think that 80% is relevant, even so, because if you're losing 4 out of 5 farms, that means that you have to protect the remaining ones extra. I probably agree that losing a farm because it becomes wetlands management area or forest is a good thing, and even if we developed some farms into dense housing I'd probably not have a problem, but having a significant loss of farmland for a dumb reason when the background noise of the situation is that a lot of farms are going anyway is a big problem.

      I'm going to alert Joanna and Frank and see if they want to defend their statistic.