A new video from Common Good makes rebuilding transportation infrastructure seem fun and vitally important at the same time. It’s also gently derisory about the political and bureaucratic inertia that’s happy to let America continue to rust.
The three-minute video is part of a social media campaign by the nonprofit organization to build public support for replacing two tunnels that carry rail traffic under the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey. The $24 billion Gateway Rail Tunnel Project — which was proposed in 2011 by Amtrak at a cost of $13.5 billion — would ease a critical rail bottleneck on the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington, saving travelers time and taxpayers money, the group says.
The video — which was created for the nonprofit by former “Daily Show” writer Alex Marino for less than $5,000 — makes its case for the Gateway Project in the easy-on-the-eyes idiom of millennials: It’s animated by slick graphics, boils down a lot of info into a video nugget suitable for a smartphone, and has the all-important tone, pacing and silliness of pop culture.
It comes with a hash tag (#takecharge), makes passing reference to “SantaCon,” and coins a new Viking-friendly term (“commute-narök”) in the lingua franca now common to all manmade or natural disasters. [The usual formula for this is, of course, n + pocalypse.] In other words, in the era of smartphones and hashtags, it’s trying to do for two decrepit railway tunnels what a video did for the effort to hunt down Joseph Kony.
But it also suggests that the process of vetting major public works programs has gone off the tracks. Overall, there’s an attitude of gentle ridicule aimed at the-powers-that-be that have stalled the tunnel project, as in “Can you believe this?”
“My experience is that bureaucracy responds to public ridicule,” Philip K. Howard, who chairs Common Good, said in an interview Thursday. “You make fun of stupid decisions, or stupid inaction.”
The people at D.C.’s Metro ought to watch before heading over to see Congress or their regional partners about creating a dedicated source of funding. It will already seem familiar to backers of Maryland’s Purple Line.
Common Good’s video is part of a broader campaign called “Who’s in charge around here?” that aims to fix broken government. On board with its bipartisan campaign are former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley (D) and former New Jersey governor Tom Kean (R), among others.
The Gateway Project is one of those common-sense government programs that should be happening but isn’t, Common Good says. The two 105-year-old rail tunnels — which carry 95,000 people a day on Amtrak and NJ Transit trains into New York City’s Penn Station — had already lived a good, long life before the remnants of Hurricane Sandy badly damaged them in 2012.
If, as has been proposed, the tunnels are forced to close one at a time for repairs, the resultant spillover of commuter traffic onto area roads is expected to be a disaster. Traffic backups could extend an additional 25 miles; gridlock in New York City is expected to occupy 44 intersections, not the current nine, the group says.
Meanwhile, the cost of replacing the tunnels has crept upward. Back in 2005, the estimate came in at $5 billion. Three years later it was $8.7 billion. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) put the kibosh on a version of the project in 2010, saying his state couldn’t afford the cost overruns. “I can’t put taxpayers on a never-ending hook,” he said at the time.
Common Good argues that the work is unavoidable and urgent, and that every tick of the clock in delay is another tick upward in cost. And yet delay we have. Amtrak has already spent more than $300 million, mostly from the feds, since 2012 on its planning and design, the railroad’s website says. Every year that goes by adds another $2 billion to the price tag, Howard said.
One of the interesting aspects of the video is its discussion of the red tape — much of it well-meaning, such as environmental and preservation reviews — that has snarled Gateway and other important public works projects.
Part of the reason is that so many committees and public agencies are involved. It’s meant lots of talk, and little else.
“Nothing is impossible until it’s sent to a committee. It’s in the nature of committee decision-making that it drags on forever without outside pressure,” Howard said. “We need to create a critical mass of public pressure to make sure that at the end of the meeting, someone says, ‘Okay, let’ s move forward and do this, instead of having another meeting.’ ”
Howard said that another reason for the delay is that the public works approval process has been hijacked — sometimes by opponents, and sometimes by proponents who fear being sued by opponents. Their battleground has become the environmental impact review or concerns that bulldozers will raze history.
“Everyone’s gaming the system,” Howard said. “The environmental review, in my opinion, is an extraordinarily important component of decision-making. But it was intended to take months, not a decade. It was intended to focus the important environmental issues, not overturning every pebble.” He said it seems nonsensical that historic preservation should be a major factor in decisions about an underground tunnel. But it is.
It’ll be interesting to see whether the Common Good video will help build a campaign for the $24 billion project. The video’s discussion of bureaucratic wrangling that has delayed the project and jacked up its price is an inadvertent reminder that democracy is a messy thing — but perhaps also a reminder that a well-crafted message is still one of the best ways to cut through the static to try to get things done.
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