ESSAY- Kafkaesque: What's wrong with federal 'enhancement' cash

For two hours this summer, I lived a Kafka novel.

In the Warrenton Visitor's Center along with 35 others, I listened as the Virginia Department of Transportation explained eligibility for federal "transportation enhancement act (TEA)" money designed to build alternatives to the American car-first culture.

"We don't normally pay for parking facilities," one presenter said. "Parking is one of those gray areas."

So was virtually everything else in VDOT's 27-page, 75-slide handout which indicated that if you're looking to build a visitor center in any building that resembled an old train depot, a museum of anything remotely connected with transportation (like the history of U.S. 11) or to plant landscaping along a roadway, you'd come to the right place.

I laughed when I learned that federal dollars, first passed by George Bush, the dad, to "improve non-motorized transportation" as the ticket to weaning America from foreign oil, had constructed the building we were sitting in. The building was adjacent to the home of John Mosby, the man who made lightning-fast horse travel common during the Civil War.

I cried when I leaned that attractive highway signs and battlefield markers– plus their pull outs– had been designed for car-eye level and built with money intended to keep us away from having to fight over oil in the Middle East.

But I knew I'd entered the "government dimension" when I learned that TEA funded a museum to house some native artifacts discovered when they'd bulldozed land for I-77, the project's sole connection to transportation. Kafka came to mind when I discovered there was a way to move parking from the gray area into the bucks– not park-and-ride parking, but parking for the places that TEA funds were providing for Americans to drive to and nicer landscape to pass while we're driving to those museums and visitor's centers.

I love museums. I can't pass a battlefield without reading a dozen signs and I'm amazed that John Singleton Mosby captured three Union generals in one raid. But doesn't something seem amiss when, in the summer of the highest gasoline and oil prices on record with global warming in daily headlines, most of the two-hour TEA workshop was about finding funding for things which do absolutely nothing to diminish our problems; nothing to do with improving non-motorized transportation?

And, instead, actually give us reasons to drive more?

Only seven of the 43 photographs presented were from multi-use hike and bike trails and I know one of them, the one which leads from the bottom of the Monticello mountain to Thomas Jefferson's home. Twice, I've hiked that 2-mile trail to take the tour of the World Heritage Site but I'm probably the only one who has ever made that climb to actually pay and go inside Monticello. Virtually every other visitor drives to the top but certainly every recreational or functional user of the trail– including me– drove to get to it.

I don't fault VDOT staff; I don't fault the people like the woman next to me who had come seeking money for a "museum of military transportation" in Manassas; I don't fault the lawmakers who have re-upped this funding twice. But I wonder about a system so far afield from reality.

 I could only sit there biting my tongue; Kafka would have penned an eye-opening novel.

Here's what America must grasp: Our failure since the 1974 Arab Oil Embargo to embrace alternative transportation is literally killing us, not just the poor soldiers and sailors we send to the Middle East to protect the oil supply.

A supply which is costing us in excess of $517 billion annually and is a primary factor in our global warming emissions.

Today, we drive 2.9 trillion miles every year consuming between 60 and 70 percent of our country's oil usage daily in our cars and trucks. We produce almost half of the world's automotive C02 in burning that daily 13 million barrels of oil while adult on-set diabetes no longer waits until puberty because we're busily teaching our children that they should never use their muscles for transportation.

 Counting the number of visitors centers and museums (27) among the projects mentioned in VDOT's slide show, I tried to discern how a program designed specifically to decrease driving might actually end up increasing it. Here's how I think it went. Instead of the "spirit of the law," grantees with histories of seeking government funding saw a way to find money from the "letter of the law" after the original ISTEA passage in 1991. Those museum and tourism folks saw the secondary concept, "enhance the traveler's experience," as a ticket to federal dollars and began applying. Pretty soon, because the alternative transportation crowds weren't showing up– bicyclists and walkers are rarely organized and don't have the ears of transportation planners– America's bureaucrats, I think, began to cater to the clients they did indeed have.

Eventually, VDOT staffs must have begun neglecting the original and– it seems to me– most important mission. At least, the two presenters at my grant workshop had no qualms about spending the vast majority of their time talking about car-tourism-related concepts.

One question, about sidewalks, received an "honest answer" that simple pedestrian travel will face a tougher challenge getting funding because sidewalks aren't "sexy enough" unless connected with museums and visitors centers.

I rushed out of the grant workshop before the presentation was over to ensure my tongue stayed silent. What's the value of potentially angering the people who will decide whether to fund my project (a footbridge to Pantops and the subject of last week's cover story) which, I submit, is desperately needed for transportation? 

I rationalize my cowardice by remembering that I love Kafka, museums and visitors centers. I mean, after all, I've been to the National Recovery and Tow Truck Museum in Chattanooga, Tennessee. 

And if that's not symbolic, I don't know what is.


Randy Salzman is a former college professor and now a Charlottesville-based freelance writer and transportation planner..