The transportation infrastructure debate: it’s not us versus them

Jersey train station

I suspect we will be reading/hearing/seeing a lot more of these Op-Ed pieces.

As New Jersey works to untangle a chaotic Interstate interchange with a massive construction project, transit proponents say the work is basically a waste, or at least a woefully inefficient use, of a billion dollars.

Their voice this time is the Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron.

I don’t think the arguments and the numbers will surprise people in the business of bridges, roads and interchanges. But what is starting to stand out to me is the number of these pieces I am seeing and the relative absence of structured debate from the people doing, or supporting, interchange and other major road work.

The court of public opinion never goes out of session, and arguments that roads don’t improve cities but transit programs do, as Ms. Saffron argues, are in line to build an increasingly large audience, possibly by default.

Maybe big news media is partly to blame. Big-city based, they may well prefer the transit argument. Maybe, also, the polarizing of the argument is a problem – an us versus them argument heats up quickly.

We need a debate that is not polarized. Remember the recent presidential election, and, for that matter, the elections before that. Political coverage in news media tended to fall to opposite ends of an us versus them continuum. Developed, sophisticated debate about issues melted in the middle, sideswiped occasionally by news desk anchors desperately racing to get to the more heated stuff.

What we do not need is a debate that makes this a black versus white issue. Transit is not simply the other end of the spectrum from better highways. We need better highways and bridges and we need a public understanding of why we need them and what it takes to build them.

Shooting at every transit program is simply polarizing (and, of course, vice versa). Transit is needed, transit works. But… It doesn’t work all the time and its not needed all the time – so we need a debate that allows the public to work out (counting with their tax dollars) which projects are best left to the road builders and which would offer more value via transit solutions.

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Joe Public shrugging his shoulders and saying it seems to him light rail and busses are better all around is not what we need. After all, Joe Public votes. 

Come on all you would be newsmen and women. Offer your local news media a reasoned, detailed, thoughtful Op-Ed on what we need.