[Note: A slightly different version of this post can be found at Jim Throgmorton, “Let’s make local investments of far more lasting value,” Iowa City Press-Citizen (August 16, 2013), p. 7A.]
A few days ago some friends and I were talking about investments and inheritances. The questions we discussed were ones that are familiar to people of a certain age, including: What kind of inheritance do we want to pass along to future generations? And, how must we invest now to ensure that the inheritance will enable those generations to thrive?
Most of the time people answer such questions in monetary terms. One person might say: ensure that your investment portfolio earns the highest possible rate of return. A more prudent person might advise: diversify your portfolio so that it earns a rate of return commensurate with the risk of loss you are willing to tolerate.
These are not trivial concerns. But, for my friends and me, much more is at stake than mere dollars.
Implicit in the idea of passing along an inheritance to future generations is the belief that there will be future generations.
There is also the presumption that our social, economic, and political world will remain stable enough for the investments to be safely passed along.
In order to pass financial resources along to future generations, therefore, we also need to invest in ways that maintain the health of the natural world, the world upon which we and our economy depend.
And we need to invest in the social communities of which we are a part, especially by strengthening the bonds of community and by aiding those of us who are least well off or most at risk.
What then are we to make of a recent article in this newspaper reporting that the Iowa Dept. of Transportation is planning to spend $270 million or more to rebuild the I-80/I-380 interchange?
Imagine somebody says to you, “Hey, we have $270 million we’d like to give you people in Johnson County; use it to invest in the future, to enhance the overall quality of the Iowa City area.” Hearing this offer, would you immediately choose to spend it on rebuilding the interchange? Or might you carefully consider other, arguably better, ways to invest such a large sum of money? (As you think about this question, consider that the School District is currently planning to spend only $150 million to build new schools and renovate older ones.)
Even if we limit ourselves to thinking about how to improve the mobility of people, goods, and services in the county, is spending $270 million on this project the best way to achieve the desired improvements? Put differently, aren’t there lower cost ways to achieve the desired mobility improvements?
Instead of thinking that large increases in traffic volumes are inevitable, and that we have no choice but to build more roads and widen existing roads, shouldn’t we try reducing the number and length of motor vehicle trips? Neighborhoods, towns, and entire regions can be built in ways that make it much easier to travel between home, school, shops, and work on foot, by bicycle, by bus, and by light rail.
Even if we accept the projected increases in traffic volumes as a given, is completely rebuilding the interchange the best way to reduce the number of accidents and injuries at this intersection? The intersection could be made safer simply by reducing the speed limit to 55 or even 50 mph on Interstates in the Iowa City area.
Rather than investing $270 million on rebuilding a highway interchange that produces little of lasting value, let’s invest in measures that get us out of our cars, strengthen the bonds of community, improve educational and employment opportunities for all, and pass along an inheritance that enables future generations to thrive.