All Austin has to do is remember

11 01 2010

Our Most Senior Fellow feels (and thus all of us here at The Placemaking Institute must also feel) it should be duly noted that Oklahoma City (following the examples set by such Texas trendsetters as Dallas and Houston and now San Antonio) has recognized broadening its transportation modalities by implementing urban rail is the way to go. All the while Austin is unfortunately still sitting on its hands.

Ack-basswards Oklahoma City, Austin, Oklahoma City!

There will be a general obligation mobility bond referendum in November 2010 which, if passed, would fund the City’s portion of the initial phase of an urban rail system.

In an Aug. 9th Express-News article, columnist Jan Jarboe Russell explained why San Antonio should develop a modern streetcar system: “In the late 1920s, all of San Antonio – then, a tiny 36 square miles – was connected by about 130 miles of electric streetcars. It was a better, more fuel-efficient and cheaper transportation system than we have today. Sadly, in 1933 we became one of the first American cities to dismantle its streetcar system. This is a no-brainer: We should bring back the streetcar. Here’s why: A starter streetcar system costs less than half of the expense to build light rail. It can be built in about half the time. It doesn’t add to air pollution and hums along like a quiet song…(And) streetcar lines not only move people efficiently and quietly, they drive economies…(Modern streetcar technology) has emerged as a symbol of a new San Antonio with a revitalized center city and a 21st-century economy.”

The Day Austin’s Streetcars Died: February 7th, 1940

Ten Reasons to Love a Streetcar

We need to pass it now; not doing so twenty years ago (when, according to TPI’s analysis of TTI’s data, was the perfect time to strike) was short-sighted and has put us behind the proverbial transportation eight-ball. If we don’t some place like freakin’ Stillwater will surpass our reputed Progressivity.




2 responses

15 01 2010
Jarrett at

But haven’t cities done a lot of stupid things purely out of the fear of some competing city would do it first?

15 01 2010

Yes (although that fear is born from greed). (editor’s note: Our Most Senior Fellow’s only bias here is that, harkening his New Orleans youth, he wishes to watch pretty girls get aboard streetcars on beautiful lazy days in Downtown Austin.) And, the delivery of this post notwithstanding, we here at The Placemaking Institute have begun communicating with various Transportation Authorities in Downtown Austin and the town he lives in outside of Austin as well as with such folks as Smart Transit S.A. (San Antonio) in order to begin working together as a whole region rather than disparate entities so that a greater good is achieved on the largest scale.

Wendell Berry: The ‘law of competition’ does not imply that many competitors will compete indefinitely. The law of competition is a simple paradox: Competition destroys competition. The law of competition implies that many competitors, competing without restraint, will ultimately and inevitably reduce the number of competitors to one. The law of competition, in short, is the law of war.”[i]

(editor’s note: Our Most Senior Fellow did his Master’s thesis on this topic, which he now culls from, so beware of much forthcoming verbiage:) As I’m quite positive you know, Jarrett, state and municipal political strategies now reflect a shift away from conventional economic development orientations toward market-based or entrepreneurial approaches. These levels of government are also forced to make financial commitments to activities of self-promotion in order to improve their ability to attract investment. They do this rather than investing said money into activities that actually directly build social capital, like skill and educational resources and training and actually putting a roof over everyone’s head who wants one. So there is indeed a dark side to such expedient, if you will, Babbittry, a process that was expedited in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when industrial recruitment strategies, born in the Depression and honed to cutthroat sharpness in two decades of bitter postwar interstate competition for footloose industry, gradually gave way to what has been called “state entrepreneurialism.” Industrial recruitment was pursued on the supply-side through proferring public subsidies for private firms in the form of tax abatements, investment credits, low interest loans, land writedowns, and labor training grants. These subsidies, which reduced the costs of operating businesses in particular states, were designed to influence business location choices. Evidence began to mount not only that such incentives rarely influenced business investment decisions but also that they had no significant job-generating effects. And yet we insist on giving corporations more and more money at the expense of the public good.


Because what amounts to a corporate propaganda campaign has been so successful that politicians at all levels have no choice but to tie economic performance focused solely on short-term and atomistic gain to their political prospects and their ability to expediently provide as many services they can at the lowest possible tax rates. So the economic performance of the jurisdiction each politician represents is held hostage to the mobility of footloose firms, which are constantly being encouraged to relocate by rival jurisdictions via such techniques as tax abatements and infrastructure subsidies that detract from the public good.

This behavior makes no sense to me.

It also appears that such behavior will continue to exist, no matter the governmental construct, as long as corporations are allowed to continue to essentially run the country the way they do today. Not only are the lower levels of government now finding themselves being pitted against each other by footloose firms, they are simultaneously being encouraged to do so by federal programs. These programs manipulate the balance in the local struggle between use and exchange goals so that one locality underbids other localities in what it will do to keep its workers functioning at the barest minimum while keeping its socioeconomic environment viable and attractive to firms. And “this new generation of policy approaches is a legacy of diverse federal programs encouraging [. . .] investment orientations, and greater risk taking [. . .] of own source revenues and substantial opportunity costs. There [is a] concomitant shift in policy orientation: the ascendance of market feasibility over social criteria [. . .] Few current American political institutions are geared to the consensual, cooperative decision processes demanded by this approach.[ii]

And on top of all that, many corporations view the government as nothing but a tool designed to help generate growth and help economies run efficiently. Some even profess the belief that government should be run exactly like a business. But as we know the financial resources of a state and municipality are extremely limited. Since people as well as corporations are guilty of demanding more and more public services while increasingly paying less and less for them, the gap between income and expenditures has increased almost geometrically, and many state and municipal governments can now scarcely provide nothing more than the most essential services. The highly decentralized U.S. federal system of government as it exists today only increases the number of players competing for economic growth and increases the intensity of the contest, exacerbating a problem that is close to reaching a critical mass.

“The real consequence of governmental fragmentation is, not the realization of place-based democracy, but the ability of self-interested elites (either business groups or affluent residents) to control governments in order to pursue their own goals [. . .] In the U.S. today, communities are encouraged, even by national policy, to compete like business enterprises, to attract business enterprises, and to externalize the costs of this success [. . . by displacing] other values and concerns, such as the role of the polity in helping people find greater satisfaction in life, the role of government in building a strong community, or the role of government in caring for the disadvantaged [. . .] Not only are the poorer citizens out of sight and out of mind, they lack even legal standing to demand wealth and service redistribution.”[iii]

[i] Wendell Berry, “The Idea of a Local Economy,” Harper’s April 2002: 18.
[ii] Susan E. Clarke and Gary L. Gaile, “The Next Wave: Postfederal Local Economic Development Strategies,” Approaches to Economic Development, eds. John P. Blair and Laura A. Reese (London: SAGE Publications, 1999) 168, 173-174.
[iii] John R. Logan and Harvey L. Molotch, Urban Fortunes: The Political Economy of Place, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987) 180, 198-199.

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