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Saturday, July 16, 2005

Hell Hath No Fury Like a Bureaucrat Scorned

If my recent conversations with a TxDOT engineer is any indication, I suspect we are up against it in the coming struggle to build a transit and housing infrastructure that will support the growing hordes of "seasoned citizens" here in rural East Texas. We are going to need to make some changes. Right now one in five of us is over 65. By 2010, one in four of us lake rats will be looking at retirement age. We already have pretty nearly the highest per capita senior population in the state. We're going to need housing and transportation because we're going to outlive our ability to drive and we're not going to be happy about it - and we baby boomers vote! So it's inevitable that some things about our infrastructure are going to have to change to support our graying population.

"Infrastructure"! What a ridiculous word to describe the complex network of stuff that makes life-as-we-know-it possible. If anything, things like water, sewer, trash disposal, mail, roads and phone service are more like, well - like plain old structure. Without these things, civilization would collapse. The Romans built roads and a postal system right off. Infrastructure is one of the things that kept the Roman empire in one piece so long. Some of their roads are still in place (along with one or two of their postmen, if the speed of my mail delivery is any indication).

Unfortunately, in preparing to meet the transportation challenges of the future here, we’ve had some officials in The Texas Department of Transportation who have believed that building roads was the only thing the department was meant to do. That's changing, but some of those good old boys are still there to be sure - dragging their boot heels at the very idea of taking road money and using it to build commuter rail, multi-modal transit hubs or paratransit bus services. It's not an accident that most of the TxDOT folks that think like that were originally trained as "highway engineers". If all you have is a hammer, every problem requires a nail!

Fortunately, the TxDOT commissioners have taken the reins and started the department down the road of becoming a "transportation" department rather than merely a "highway" department. Commissioners Ric Williamson, Hope Andrade and East Texas' own Robert Nichols deserve a lot of credit in pushing the change in philosophy at the DOT. They had to change the name from "Highway Department" to "Department of Transportation" back almost a decade or so ago to get the process started and they're still struggling to get some of the staff guys out of their road-building rut even now.

At a recent TxDOT public forum, one of these road-builder guys pinned me in the corner and rattled on at length wondering why there isn’t a city the size of Houston plunked down in the middle of the Piney Woods somewhere. "We’ve got the resources to support one after all", he said. His answer to this population puzzle? We need more roads!

He couldn't have been more wrong. We don't need more roads (except for maybe Governor Perry's corridors - you know, the ones that speed trucks and Yankees through the state without giving them too many places where they can pull off the road). You see, I can tell him why there’s no "Houston Does The Big Thicket" type metropolis in East Texas. It’s because we don’t want one! Great Scott! Could you imagine all that many urban dandies descending on Arp or Henderson or Alto. For us it would be like the plague of locusts that Moses called down on Egypt.

And can you imagine the troubles all those city folk would face moving here? It would be like invading Somalia. Everywhere they would meet small bands of grizzled and heavily armed East Texans determined to fight off the furrin’ invaders.

It’s not that we actively dislike cities or would want Houston to drop into the sea or anything like that. As a theoretical exercise, we agree that something like Houston ought to exists somewhere - preferably somewhere far away. It only makes sense that in the whole vast sea of humanity a few million people might slosh up in some backwater or other - quite by accident of course. No one in his right mind would deliberately settle some place where twenty or thirty thousand other people are camped out in an area the size of a Noonday onion patch. I mean, where in hell would you fish? And imagine all those septic tanks percolating down into the aquifer and out into the lakes all at once. Horrifying to imagine.

East Texans would be able to tolerate a few city folks–retirees and the like, but only if you spread ‘em out some. City folks are like manure. You spread ‘em out over a million acres of woods and lakes and they can do a lot of good (for the economy & such), but boy howdy, you try and pile ‘em up all up in one place and pretty soon, the place is gonna start to stink!

The piney woods ought to have a big city in it!!!!! What a crock of pig pellets!

Just one man's opinion!

They're really gonna get me if the road guys read this aren't they? I can see it now - "Uh, Mr. King, we're here with these bulldozers to build a new four lane highway over the top of your house. We do apologize for any inconvenience..."

Tom King

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