More than road repairs needed for innovative economy

Published: Sunday, April 7, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, April 6, 2013 at 12:15 a.m.

In his book "Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don't," author James C. Collins lists two necessary steps for forward progress:

Get the right people on the bus. And then make sure they are in the right seats.

Collins was writing for the business world, but his advice holds true for the public sphere as well.

Which brings me to the great road tax debacle of 2012.

What should have been a serious debate about how best to pay for the community's long-term transportation needs was allowed to degenerate into a silly, and false, choice between potholes and bus rapid transit.

In truth, the decisive defeat of last year's sales tax vote was preordained by petty politics, nonexistent leadership and the utter lack of a broad coalition in support of a common vision for Alachua County's transportation future.

And that was just the latest in a string of transportation tax defeats that have stretched out over the past three decades.

Heck, it's not as though we are anti-tax around here. In past elections we've approved a courthouse tax, a health care tax, and a couple of land conservation and parks taxes.

Either voters in this county simply aren't interested in spending money for roads, transit and other ways to get around, or those unsuccessful initiatives were so poorly planned, badly led and thinly supported as to be doomed to failure.

So who's driving this bus, anyway?

On Wednesday the Alachua County Commission will host a much anticipated transportation summit from 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m., at the Gainesville/Alachua County Senior Recreation Center at 5701 N.W. 34th Street.

"The summit is an opportunity for the County to receive public input on the future of the County's transportation system, what that system will look like, and the steps needed to achieve an effective and efficient system," says the county's website.

Much of that input is going to sound very familiar.

Some folks will stand up and say pretty much what they said before the last election: "Just fix the roads and stop wasting our money on buses, bike lanes, road narrowing and sidewalks."

We already know where that line of reasoning leads. To a dead end.

Still others will come to the podium with more thoughtful contributions:

Of course we need to fix our roads. But if Innovation Gainesville is going to be anything more than an economic development mirage, equally innovative leaps in transit, bikeways and pedestrian amenities will be needed to support it.

Those are the people that commissioners should be listening to. And after the summit is over, those are the folks who will have to keep the conversation going; in board rooms and public meeting halls, on the pages of this newspaper and in gatherings both casual and formal throughout the community.

Simply put, this university community's ambition to build a sustainable, knowledge-based economy won't get very far on the traditional suburban-based transportation system that has come to define much of AutoAmerica.

The truth is that both Alachua County and Gainesville already have some very progressive (dare I say "innovative"?) plans for making it easier to get from one place to another using a variety of transportation choices. What's missing is the money — serious money, long-term money — to make those plans a reality.

And absent a broad coalition of organizations, community leaders and individuals climbing on the bus in support of whatever transportation initiative is destined to appear on the next ballot, that one too will be doomed to failure.

"Most people assume that great bus drivers (read: business leaders) immediately start the journey by announcing to the people on the bus where they're going," Collins writes. "In fact ... they start by getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats."

After the transportation summit is over, the real work of selling a cogent vision for Alachua County's transportation future will begin.

If the right people aren't on that bus, and in the right seats, it will very likely break down, once again, come the next election.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun.

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