Two seemingly unrelated articles have led me to ponder North Carolina’s policy future. The first was an article on the website CityLab that reported on Maryland’s $9 billion project to widen three of the state’s highways. Written from a skeptic’s point of view, the article provided an overview of how these sorts of public private partnerships (P3s) work and why some P3s are dubious.
Traffic, the underlying problem, is all too real in the Washington metro area. Quoting the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, the Washington area, which includes southern Maryland, is the most gridlock-plagued city in the country. Commuters suffer an average of 82 hours of delay per commuter. That is delay—not commute time.
The Charlotte area’s I-77 toll project was not-so-gloriously featured in the article as an example of the negative aspects of P3 construction. (While there has been plenty of controversy about the project, in fairness, the primary problem cited with I-77, road debris, is not limited to P3 projects.) The article hit home for me as I recently drove down Highway 64 to points east and noticed that the westbound traffic, usually one of the Triangle’s more fluid traffic arteries, was clogged at three different points in Wake County.
The tone of the article, and indeed the tone of many recent policy discussions about traffic and transportation, seems to be: we do not know exactly what to do about this public problem; we are skeptical that what we are doing is the right solution; we cannot assuredly cite an alternative; and whatever we do is going to take a while. That’s never a good policy overview.
The second piece was a New York Times magazine article last week about the death of rural towns in Italy. “Who Will Save These Dying Italian Towns?” is a feature story, not a public policy piece. The article hauntingly describes these centuries old towns that are struggling to exist. Incidentally, the author’s question from the title is never answered.
The positive examples in the articles are the ones where the towns’ answers have been to rely on weekend, second home types or novelty, day tourists who come to gawk at history eroding in real time. It is like Pompeii without the volcano.
One of poignant points of the article describes the “delicate ecosystems” that rural towns have in which, “the town, the people, its cultural production and the countryside are inextricable from one another; as one falters or languishes, so too do the others.”
While focused on Europe the article acknowledges that the U.S., too has struggling towns. Looking over the landscape of North Carolina, we have our fair share, and there is a definitely a parallel sense that the shift in agriculture has similarly affected the decline in many small towns in N.C.
Strengthening our ecosystems
On one hand, we have the costs of growth and the other the costs of decline. How do we balance these challenges and build towards a state that works to solve both?
The irony is that these infrastructure issues are ones where most people can agree that we need more attention, but we are still trying to figure out how we invest in ourselves. As the Governor of Maryland is experiencing, people are wary of investing record amounts of money in an infrastructural model—in this case multi-lane interstate highways—that they sense may not be as relevant in the future.
Likewise, in smaller, rural towns our mantra is that jobs are the answers. That is, if we can build up our economic development muscles, we can help our dwindling places grow. Jobs are clearly part of the equation, but there is also a growing sense that the quality of place—housing stock, cultural amenities, education, and local government efficiency—matters. No one knows for sure what the right balance is, but we know that jobs do not just come anywhere.
These infrastructural questions now trickle down to the individual level. I recently had to change my vehicle. The calculus was more difficult than the last time I went through the process. Gas or electric or hybrid? What level of safety features? What level of automation features? The whole time I had a sense that there was a wrong answer— that I might purchase something that would be obsolete.
Our problems are ones of our civilization and not our specific state. Therein, lies the hope. North Carolina is not alone in its infrastructural challenges. As much as any other place, we have the ability to make smart decisions and to reconstruct our ecosystems. We are big enough that we can experiment a little bit on different strategies in hope that we uncover replicable models. Now is the time. Are our policymakers ready?Weekly Insight