Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Political realities

I'm not a mind reader, so I don't know for sure why the Tri-State Transportation Campaign's Kate Slevin said, "we're not against a new bridge; we can't have BRT without one." But I suspect it has something to do with what John Gromada said in response to a post of mine that was featured in Nyack News and Views: "The political reality is thus that your plan has no chance of ever happening."

Political reality is a handy thing. Everyone seems to have a healthy grasp of it, at least judging by the number of people who have lectured me recently on the political reality of the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement, the fate of the Rockaway Branch of the Long Island Rail Road, and the parking garages proposed for the Northern Branch of the Erie Railroad.

The political reality is obvious to people - until it isn't. For those of you who don't remember five years ago in New York City, we had resigned ourselves to a Department of Transportation that tried to impose arbitrary one-way plans on neighborhoods that didn't want them. Physically separated bike paths were something we could only dream of in our city. Then, on May 14, 2007, Janette Sadik-Khan was appointed Transportation Commissioner, and the political reality changed.

For the Tappan Zee Bridge itself, the political reality for years was that there was an uneasy truce between the highway pushers, the train advocates and the cycling activists bus rapid transit proponents around a (pretty shitty) plan that would include all three. Then one morning Andrew Cuomo calculated that it wouldn't get done in time for him to take credit for it, and presto! all three vanished overnight.

I'm all for taking a realistic view of the political landscape - in fact, last year I criticized Slevin and friends for their lack of appreciation of the politics of the 34th Street Transitway. But there's a big difference between my realpolitik and that practiced by Slevin or Gromada or Dave Zornow: I never rule anything out for good.

As Jarrett Walker is fond of pointing out, physical principles can be absolute and forever, and should constrain your sense of what's possible as you advocate for transit. For example, any vehicle that runs on a road with shock absorbers is going to be more jerky and less comfortable than a vehicle on tracks without them. Politics is different. Politics can change. A political analysis can give you an idea of which strategy is more likely to accomplish your goals, or which battle is worth fighting. It may suggest that at this point there is not enough political support to build a new rail line. What it can't do is tell you for certain that there will never be enough support.

The way to handle political uncertainty is very simple. Rather than saying "we can't have" something, you just say what it would take to get that thing. For example, in order to get "BRT on the Bridge," someone needs to either overcome Cuomo's ambition, or make your plan compatible with it. You can still say that a plan (say, is so far outside of what's currently being done that it's a waste of time to discuss it unless something big changes.

It may be less satisfying than saying "Never going to happen!" but it's a lot more honest.


nathan_h said...

It must be fun to be lectured on "political reality" by people begging for billion dollar transit components on a six billion dollar (plus!) auto bridge that we don't need, in 2012. Have these people taken the political temperature of big spending projects lately? Have they heard about our state finances? Have they read a newspaper?

The politically savvy thing would be to come out ahead of the inevitable public backlash against this project, which will mount as its costs become more evident. Even if we start to build this thing there's a great chance it will be cancelled later. It's a just a question of how much money we flush down the river first.

The one thing that won't ever happen, in this "reality", is the absurd double bridge with a jogging path down the middle of the second span. What a joke. I am surprised they didn't draw in lanes to win support from every naive interest group. Pixels are cheap! Where's my gay lane, Cuomo?

John G said...

Cap'n- the only way your idea of removing the bridge could ever happen is if some big money interests would profit from it. Building a new bridge is going to make $$ for people who buy and sell bonds- lots of folks waiting in the wings to make some money on this one. Unfortunately in this capitalist society, we must wait for the day when industry, specifically Detroit and the oil industry, figure out a way they can profit from transit. It will happen some day I'm sure-

But so many unhealthy economic relationships have been established that will be very difficult to break. Perhaps if scientists can establish a link between erectile dysfunction and driving or riding in a car, we could swiftly have more resources put towards the ideas you write about so eloquently and convincingly and which I support. I unfortunately am very much a pessimist - have been since the 2000 election.

Thanks for your excellent blog.

John Gromada