An email asks a seemingly eternal question, from reader Aaron Brown:
I … wanted to reach out to see if you’d be willing to provide any thoughts on the massive capital funding backlogs that major transit systems face here in the US. The latest reports I’ve seen throw around numbers above $50bn just to bring systems into a state of good repair, excluding any expansion. Given the current condition of local, state, and federal budgets, this number seems extremely daunting to me.Here in Chicago, for instance, we have a pretty solid transit system (relative to most US cities), but one that is old and badly in need of repairs. Again, however, the amount need just to bring the system to a state of good repair ($7bn for the CTA alone) seems overwhelming. We have aging buses and railcars, tracks and ties in need of replacement, and an L system with structures over 100 years old that are all competing for limited funds. And this is in a city and transit system that is seeing record ridership and will need to expand over the next few decades to serve one of the largest (and growing) metro areas in the country.
I know you typically focus on the technical and design aspects of transit systems, but have you given any thought to the funding issues they face? Are we US city-dwellers doomed to face continuing deterioration of our mass transit systems because of a lack of government funding? Or are we doomed to fight the losing battle to raise taxes to pay for these capital needs? And – finally – are there non-traditional ways to raise revenues that might be worth exploring in your mind?
The question makes me want to distinguish not just between strategy and tactics, but also between strategy and a thing that hangs above the level of strategy, which we might call principle.
- Tactics are means of getting things done, in the short term, in the existing situation. If the existing situation is messy, the tactics will be pretty messy. A typical tactic, in the legislative context, is something like: “Hide the transit funding inside a highway bill and add a million for the Pork Rind Museum in the Speaker’s district.”
- Strategy is a longer-term or bigger-picture sense of direction or objective, the larger thing you’re trying to accomplish. Strategies look a little purer than tactics, but they also aim for the longer term. A strategy is something like “build consensus on the link between transit and urban economic development, by engaging key development lobbies to construct a larger transit advocacy coalition.”
- Principles, in my mind, are descriptions of what state of affairs would be just or appropriate or civilized or sustainable. Principles can also be boundaries on what will be considered ethical or reasonable. Strategies that are worth anything have principles behind them.
So a principle might be: “Aim to break down the boundaries between Federal Transit, Highway, and Railroad administrations for the purposes of funding streams. Aim for a simplified transport funding structure in which all areas receive comparable per-capita spending over long cycles — say an entire decade. Make this funding entirely fungible between transit and highways so that each jurisdiction can focus on whatever balance of modes reflects its local consensus.” (When you see your way to dropping the “Aim to” from those principles, you’re ready to turn the principles into strategies.)
But another might be: “Several urgent matters of national security directly benefit from more sustainable and compact urbanism — notably climate change, petroleum dependence, and food security. For these reasons, national policy should tilt funding priorities in that direction, beyond what would be dictated by strictly per capita funding shares.”
Principles may be completely vague about how to move forward; that’s the work of strategy in the medium term and tactics in the short term. On the other hand, principles can be quite prescriptive about placing boundaries on short term behavior. One such principle might be: “Do not under any circumstances permit a net shift in funding from transit to highways.” You could argue that this is too rigid. In soccer, for example, it sometimes makes sense to kick the ball back to your own goalkeeper. But your principle can embrace that possibility by saying that a net shift toward highways shouldn’t remain a net shift for more than x number of years. After all, when you kick the ball back to your own goalkeeper, it’s specifically for the purpose of getting it moved in the opposite direction, and soon.
Aaron’s question helps me better articulate an important feature of this blog’s brand or niche. I’m really not very interested in political tactics, and am happy to defer to people who are, such as Yonah Freemark for example. Many great political bloggers cover nothing but tactics; when did you last read about a principle on Talking Points Memo, for example?
I’m interested in strategy to the extent that it can manifest principle and turn principles into tactics. I’m very interested in principles, because they highlight the real disagreements, and therefore define the real game. My experience is that some purely tactical-minded transit managers often sacrifice important principles for the tactical needs of the moment — in other words, they are prone to make Faustian bargains.
So I mostly do principles here, and principle-based critiques. Sometimes I lay out, on the level of principle, how we go about getting something very immediate and tactical done — here, for example. (All good tactical manuals are based on principles.) But when it comes to how to get a particular short term proposal through a particular messy situation, I generally defer to the tacticians, while reminding them to keep one eye on the principles.
How’s that for evading a question? Is this why people sometimes tell me I should run for office? In fact, it’s exactly why I won’t!