Preserving the American Dream: Lessons in Beating Boondoggles By Gini David
First, the bad news: So-called “smart growth,” central planning schemes involving land use and mass transit are popping up all over the country like crabgrass. Now the good news: Some folks have successfully managed to galvanize opposition with grassroots organizing tactics and to beat boondoggles before they blossom into financial fiascos for taxpayers.
In late October, I attended the Preserving the American Dream conference in Washington DC, sponsored by the American Dream Coalition (ADC, http://americandreamcoalition.org), a coalition that promotes freedom, affordable home ownership, property rights, and mobility. To combat big government boondoggles, the ADC provides strategic and tactical counsel from planning experts like Randall O’Toole (Cato Institute), demographer Wendell Cox, ADC’s executive director Eileen Bruskewitz, transit expert Tom Rubin, ethics analyst and writer Stanley Kurtz, and others.
The three-day conference kicked off with an all-day tour of urban projects in the DC Metro area, highlighted by the infamous “Million Dollar Bus Stop” in Arlington (which isn’t paved with Swarovski crystals), the proposed Silver Line Metro to Dulles International Airport, and the tree-lined town of Bowie, aka “Maryland’s Levittown” as an example of a well-planned suburb.
Transit issues were the focus of much of the ADC conference because in urban planning this is often where the tail wags the dog and creates most issues for citizens. Ideally, the end game should be improved mobility – getting people to employment centers -- and congestion relief balanced with fiscal responsibility. As Randall O’Toole argued, “Paint is cheap,” and mobility can often be achieved with bus systems that are more flexible and far more affordable than fixed rail systems like refurbished trolleys and mega-million dollar projects like our SMART train.
But in the last decade or so, there’s been an explosion of rail projects. Like moths to flame, many politicians and planners seem drawn to rail projects because these “new starts” tempt them with glossy funding from federal agencies like the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). Rail plans usually begin with good intentions, often marketed to the public as “Smart” and “Sustainable.” But too often, ridership projections are fudged to sell projects to taxpayers who later get stuck with construction over-runs and ongoing maintenance. Consider this stat: nationwide, American cities face $77 billion in unfunded maintenance costs for rail projects!
What’s more, Panos Prevedouros, a professor of transportation engineering at the University of Hawaii, told the ADC audience that rail projects are rife with corruption and fraud, quoting Bent Flyvbjerg, the renowned Chair of Large Program Management at Oxford University: “Rail projects are the projects most fraught with delusion and deception.” As Prevedouros explained, “Deception because proponents lie to constituents and overstate ridership and understate costs. And delusion because proponents believe that their projects are better and different than other failures from the past.”
Further complicating matters: many transit projects are hog-tied to massive land use plans like Plan Bay Area or Portland’s Metro. Federal transit funding becomes both the carrot AND the stick, forcing cities to comply with specific density quotas and “affordable and fair housing” standards, eroding local control, and chasing compliance with far-away bureaucracies and non-government organizations. (Sound familiar?)
But all is not lost. A fascinating “Beating Boondoggles” workshop presented testimonies by people like Eileen Bruskewitz, ADC’s executive director and a former county supervisor in Dane County, Wisconsin, which encompasses uber- liberal Madison. Eileen opposed a wasteful rail project using a cool tool box of publicity tactics that turned personal attacks on her as a “knuckle-dragging conservative” into PR gold. Local shock jocks rallied around the spunky, self-proclaimed “Cavewoman” and her “No tax for tracks” campaign, causing the rail plan to go belly up. On the west coast, Tiffany Couch, a CPA/CFF and forensic accountant – how sexy is that! – dug diligently for real numbers and dubious practices on a high-profile $1 billion rail project between Oregon and Washington. Tiffany’s forensic accounting skills and articulate, common sense exposed local corruption and defeated the project.
Also inspiring were Karen Jaroch and Sharon Calvert from the Tampa Tea Party, who won the ADC’s annual “American Dreamers” award for their fearless fight against a 2010 tax increase to fund a rail project in Hillsborough County. I met people who were at different stages of their local battles – people like Barbara and Giselle from Pinellas County who were fighting a wasteful rail plan, and Katherine Kersten, a policy analyst from Minneapolis whose city received a $5 million “sustainable community grant” from HUD, as our own ABAG did to promote Plan Bay Area. Bottom line: Federal $ = Carrot and Hammer.
A major speaker was Stanley Kurtz, author and Senior Fellow at The Ethics and Public Policy Center, who warned about the murky end game of the Regional Equality Movement exposed in his book, “Spreading the Wealth: How Obama is Robbing the Suburbs to Pay for the Cities.” And at Monday night’s dinner, newly elected U.S. Representative Thomas Massie (KY-R), lightened the mood with an inside look at Congress and a wicked sense of humor: “In DC, I drive a cheaper Tesla sedan with a bumper sticker reading ‘Kentucky Friends of Coal.’”
The conference ended with savvy grassroots organizing tips from an all-star panel featuring Mimi Steel, who discussed opposition to Plan Bay Area, and Andrea McCarthy of the Cato Institute who gave common sense media relations tips (‘call people, follow up!”). For me, the most compelling insights came from Hadley Heath, a policy analyst at the Independent Women’s Forum (iwf.org) and sometimes Fox contributor, who gave tips on messaging and language. Referencing Jonathan Haidt’s book, “The Righteous Mind,” which studies moral values and politics, Hadley suggested using words like “fairness” and “caring” which tend to resonate more favorably with liberals. (Made sense to me and now I’m commenting “UNFAIR Obamacare” on many of my Facebook posts.)
Finally, every morning in DC, I jogged six blocks to the White House and asked strangers to take a photo of me mugging in front of the White House, arms outstretched, asking the president a question, which I’d later post on my Facebook timeline. In my short “Hi Mr. President” photo blog, I asked about jobs, Obamacare, and so on. I never received a response from our president, but while in DC I got plenty of inspiration and resources from the American Dream conference. And a little hope that people are fighting big government boondoggles – and occasionally winning!
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