Half Past the Month: Government Theatre

August 17, 2016

by Craig Ladwig

To be sure, government as entertainment is an acquired taste. But if you can imagine a ballet with the dancers drafted from a personal-injury law firm and the Amalgamated Plumbers Union you can appreciate it.

For the connoisseur, there is the planning and zoning meeting. David Mamet, the playwright, famously described this particular form of government theatre in an essay for the Village Voice:

“In the abstract, we may envision an Olympian perfection of perfect beings doing the business of their employers, the people, but any of us who has ever been at a zoning meeting with our property at stake is aware of the urge to cut through all the pernicious bullshit and go straight to firearms.”

One of my prize performances — yes, I collect them — occurred in a southern county many years ago. The commissioners, one of them in a chambray shirt and bib overalls, had convened to review the new “master” plan, among the first in the state.

The presentation, though lengthy, seemed to go over well. After the meeting, the commissioner in the overalls was given the honor of thanking the out-of-town expert (he had driven all the way from Chicago) and telling him he had been using a map of a different county in a different state.

A second favorite is the public transportation meeting. There is marvelous creative tension between public-transit planners and the hapless citizens for whom they presume to plan. Currently playing in Indianapolis, for instance, is a production of “the Red Line” featuring the touring company of the Indianapolis Public Transportation Corporation (IndyGo).

Indianapolis, you may know, is a car-happy city, ranking in the top five in the nation with 721 cars per 1,000 residents. But those paid to provide public transportation are undaunted by the public’s disinterest in public transportation. They have joined with federal transportation authorities to spend $96 million (for starters) on expanding the public-transit system there. The plan, dubbed the Red Line, converts selected traffic lanes to bus-only traffic.

Economics, however, is at work even at IndyGo. Randal O’Toole, an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation and the transportation expert for Cato Institute, notes that the dedicated lanes, formerly packed with commuting vehicles, will be 90 percent empty. And the new buses, after pushing other traffic to the side, will average half the speed of the cars and trucks.

O’Toole projects that even during rush hours the current buses could handle the Red Line’s estimated passenger load. But IndyGo wants to buy 60-foot, battery-powered ones that cost four times as much. O’Toole, though, doubts they will be carrying more than 15 passengers on each five-mile trip, prompting the suggestion that IndyGo contract with Uber to simply transport anyone waiting around at a bus stop.

Finally, the new electric buses will be twice as heavy, which means they will take that much more energy. All but 10 percent of that energy, by the way, battery-powered buses or not, will be generated by burning fossil fuels from Indianapolis Power & Light.

Yes, proponents concede, but the new buses won’t stop as often.

Got that? The rapid-transit speed is achieved by not stopping for passengers, or not as often as previously (25 percent less often by our count). IndyGo riders standing at their favorite stop along the Red Line route will have vantage to watch the new buses whiz by. And those who get on board, especially those who use the line daily to get to work, will have paid for IndyGo’s speed with shoe leather, walking further to and from their stops.

This is a transportation engineer’s idea of slapstick.

Craig Ladwig is editor of the quarterly Indiana Policy Review.


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