Texas transportation discussion with Robert Nichols and Larry Phillips

Tribfest 2014 Transport Pickett 4 more

The Austin Club
110 E. Ninth St.
Austin, TX 78701

Thursday, April 4, 2013
7:30 – 9 a.m.
With the way Texas pays for its roads under the spotlight this session, join state Sen. Robert Nichols and state Rep. Larry Phillips for a conversation about transportation with Tribune reporter Aman Batheja.

This event was sponsored by CH2M Hill, and this series of conversations was generously sponsored by AT&T, BP, Raise Your Hand Texas, Christus Health, the Texas Coalition of Dental Service Organizations, Texas A&M University and 83rd legislative session sponsor My Plates.

Full video of Aman Batheja’s 4/4 TribLive conversation with state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, and state Rep. Larry Phillips, R-Sherman. (posted by Texas Tribune)

It’s alive! (responsible journalism). But newspapers are history.

SxSW 2013 Craig Newark, Poynter Kelly McBride: responsible journalism

“Craigslist” Craig Newmark, Poynter Kelly McBride on responsible journalism, at the 2013 South by Southwest Interactive 2013 in Austin Texas

“If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh – or they may kill you – Oscar Wilde. (Quoted by Craig Newmark at SxSW interactive 2013)

New standards of journalism in a new age (of journalism)  

Someone from Poynter went through the crowd, handing out a small pamphlet titled “100 Ideas to Make Your Journalism Better” to the large audience who had come to hear Craig “Craigslist” Newmark and Poynter’s faculty member Kelly McBride talk about what has gone wrong – and what’s right—in modern journalism.

“Journalism should be the immune system of democracy,” Craig told the crowd. “Without information, how can we vote responsibly?”

Excited, maybe a little bit nervous, but with a strong edge of humility, the well-known founder of Craigslist described himself as “a nerd” who became a customer service professional.

He and Kelly McBride summarized the recent woes of journalism. More than one-fourth of all journalists have been laid off since 2007, in part due to economic disruptors such as Craigslist, which took away a valuable source of revenue for newspapers (the classified).

It’s not that people aren’t consuming news content. But spite of the growth of digital news delivery, for every dollar of digital revenue $7 in print revenue has been lost.

You can tell the organization is eating itself when a bastion of supposedly solid journalism like CNN chooses to eliminate its own investigative news journalism department.

In addition to the economic struggles of the news industry, the journalism food chain has changed. Once the pecking order was local reporters, then mid-size newspapers, and finally national news outlets. Nowadays, entertainment news and social media is at the top of the pile, with mid-size news, national news, and national magazines in the middle and local news at the bottom. This topsy-turvy situation has encouraged gossipy, sensationalist news and the viral spread of misinformation.

It’s hard to judge the quality of the content being served in a business forced to put journalists on a “hamster wheel” where writers pump out content on constant deadline. Effective investigative journalism  takes time to produce.

In contrast, the Poynter Institute is supporting a journalistic environment where there is sufficient time to think—and it’s building a new framework for ethical, community journalism.

This means turning away from the current farce of “balanced” news, where manifestly absurd, offensive ideas are given a voice to counter sanity, in order to pay lip service to “fair” reporting.

McBride derided the cliché of presenting a news story in the “two viewpoints” pretense of objectivity.  This artificial creation of false balance – reporters giving equal weight to opposing views even though one viewpoint is demonstrably false or irrelevant, is a big part of what’s wrong with the craft of reporting.

So, how should a responsible journalist write a story? According to McBride, good journalists get smart (informed)—and then speak with authority about what’s going on.

Journalism and ethical reporting

One of Craig’s pet peeves is broadcast  journalists interviewing talking heads that sit atop PR hacks and lobbyists—“ A responsible journalist shouldn’t interview people who are paid to lie.”

SxSW 2013 Craig Newmark: don't interview people who are paid to lie

He says being a news reporter is one of the most difficult careers to pursue but it is only a worthy calling if you deliver information that others can trust. We are in a bizarre situation right now, where we might feel more “truthiness” from watching an  “entertainment” show like The Daily Show, and find it surreal to discover news “actors” (as opposed to anchors) on global news networks, whose only involvement in a story is reading the words off a teleprompter.

SxSW 2013 Craig Newmark: responsible journalism immune system of democracy

Integrating journalism into communities

Social media has been a disruption to traditional journalism. The product has been the article, photo, or Vine/Youtube post as content. That social news product enhances, and helps to build, community. Citizens can inform themselves with the right tools: consider Politifact, a great combination of news and nerds.  (http://www.politifact.com/ )

But news gathering by community journalists, according to Newmark and McBride, are not rivals to professional journalism, although they augment and help to redefine its purpose and methods.

Consider the news opportunity created during the Huffington Post Obama fundraiser when the phrase, “clinging to guns and religion,” was released by the media. Consider how the recorded and shared  “48 percent” quote during a Romney fundraiser may have altered political outcomes.

Journalism is also a business. But it should differ from other industries, where the product is perceived as a means to an end. With responsible journalism, community should be the end product of the reporting of truth.

Traditional journalists saw community as a resource to create something else. McBride says that we should rethink this and recognize that community is an end in itself.

Newmark says that citizen journalism is good, but we need trained editors, content curators, fact checkers, professional writers and professionalism in every area in order to have responsible, quality journalism.

McBride and Newmark shared two lists of journalism values for the audience to consider. One was time-honored, from Mother Jones; the other is suggested by The Poynter Institute  for journalism in a new era of community.

SxSW 2013: journalists should get smart to speak with authority

Mother Jones: journalism values

  1. Seek the truth and report it.
  2. Be independent.
  3. Minimize harm.
  4. Be accountable.

New set of journalism values suggested by Poynter

  1. Seek truth and report it.
  2. Be transparent (about what you know and what you don’t know).
  3. Engage the community as an end.

Poynter has a book out if you are interested in finding out more about their ideas of what journalism could become. http://about.poynter.org/about-us/press-room/poynter-publishes-definitive-new-journalism-ethics-book

And Craig Newmark is out there, talking at events like SxSW Interactive about responsible journalism, trying to help, supporting groups like Poynter: “A nerd’s gotta do what a nerd’s gotta do. Nerds are always outsiders.”

SxSW 2013: Misinformation travels faster than the correction

Responsible journalism is the immune system of democracy – Craig “Craigslist” Newmark

Listen to the presentation on Soundcloud

More images from 2013 South by Southwest Interactive

2013 SxSW Interactive Presentations on Soundcloud 

Find out more about the South by Southwest Interactive Conference in Austin Texas

Texas, Fight!!! (over road funding)

Tribfest 2013 Panel transport Txdot dir 5 shot panel 02

Panel discussion with Drew Darby, Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, Robert Nichols, Joe Pickett, Tommy Williams, moderated by Erica Greider. @ the 2013 annual Texas Tribune Festival on the UT Austin campus. 

There’s nothing Texans enjoy more than a good fight, and there is nothing quite as much fun as watching Texans rassle over how to apportion money for road maintenance, repair, and for new roads. How to fund it? Who should get what?

With 10M annually in the TxDOT budget for roads, Phil Wilson is asking for more money, and I am not one to deny TxDOT what they need to keep us safe on Texas roads. No matter how efficient they become at using resources, there is a desparate need for more money. Not all agree.

The lions share of the money, according to State Senator Robert Nichols, a very reasonable fellow and hardworking chairman of the transportation committee in the Texas Senate, goes to maintenance. Not everyone understands how important this work is for traveler safety.

Planning and  development is done 10 years, 20 years out, by construction planners, and the massive funds must be dedicated for years in advance to keep the system working functionally.

The problem is that Texas has not been adequately funding for maintenance, much less massive growth. This is coming home to roost on Texas legislators, like an angry, sharp-taloned Velociraptor.

It has lived off a diet of city and state bonds, toll-road deals, and federal stimulus funds. But that money is gone, according to various transportation experts, and the billion dollar question is: what funding source comes next?

Meanwhile, we are converting some rural paved roads to gravel. Is the funding situation that urgent, or is that a political ploy to motivate funding?

Since the Texas Governor, Rick Perry, has vowed to veto bills that would transfuse more money into the system, and the Texas Lege session has ended, we are back to the talking stage now, rather than acting.

So we are back to toll deals, “efficiency” schemes like “two wheels on a gravel road,” and the hope that next time the Lege is in session we’ll have a new governor and a legislature with the “political will” to vote for what Texans need: safer roads, funding for transit, improved congestion planning, more and better targeted rail projects, support for multi-modal ideas, and pavement for those gravel roads.

There is a plan afoot — inspired by a earlier bill by Chairman Nichols that was not passed by the Senate – where a committee will decide whether use some banked money to spend down some transportation-related debts or borrowed funding for future construction. As Tommy Williams says —  and he prefaced the remark with an statement, born of exasperation, about trying to satisfy the whims of nabobs this year while at the Lege — “Why leave money in a low-interest savings account when you could pay off a high-interest on a loan?”

A politico from one of Texas’ rural counties made a case for increased state funding for the maintenance of rural roads. With hundreds of drill permits, unheard of sums are being spent by counties just to re-gravel damaged roads. They are asking for more state support for these county-owned roads.

Historically, in Texas rural areas, the primary county roads were converted into highways, and many other roads were also upgraded and brought into the fold of TxDOT funding and maintenance.

The state is benefiting from revenue coming out of drilling, but so are the companies who are doing the drilling. Why don’t those companies pay more for the damages they inflict with oversize, overweight, superheavy trucks used for drilling and shale-related work?

Tribfest 2013 Att Texas Fight road funding

The future of transportation in Texas: dystopia? We need to work a 12-step on this, Mr. Wilson

Tribfest 2014 Transport Pickett 4 more

Panel Discussion: Deirdre DelisiMichael MorrisLarry PhillipsNicolas RubioPhil Wilson, with Aman Batheja (mod.)

Texas Tribune Festival has once again brought TxDOT Director Phil Wilson, along with other heavy hitters in Texas transportation to the UT Austin campus to discuss the future of Texas roads. What does our future hold? I am as curious as the next traveler to hear how exactly the state plans to manage the complex problems of funding, logistics, and implementation.

TxDOT does not appear to be doing business as usual, at least not as far as transportation research is concerned. Universities all over the state are wondering where the funding went, as TxDOT has not released research funds at this time for fiscal year 2014. Other types of funding continues, such as inter-agency contracts and funding to professional consultants.

(UPDATE: Phil WIlson said, after the event, that there will be some major surprises related to the research funding for FY 2014.  Perhaps soon the uncertainty for the UT System and A&M System research groups will be resolved. I hope so. Research centers are fragile and highly dependent upon annual funding programs such as UTC, SWUTC, TxDOT, city funding, and other federal funding. If graduate students go elsewhere for their masters and Ph.D. engineering studies, Texas will lose a lot of smart young people who spend their time at universities performing research and coming up with solutions to transportation problems.)

I personally do not understand the continued determination, in the face of a broad lack of public and legislative support, for foreign-funded toll road projects. Texas can’t seem to figure out any other way to fund roads anymore. Are TxDOT officials trendsetters —  or is this the beginning of a transport dystopia, where only the wealthy will ride the highways, while the rest of us will have to make do with gravel roads, impoverished public transit systems, and whatever roads are left that are not “privatized”? One justification is that tolled lanes will cover the cost of the maintenance of the other highway lanes. But toll roads are encroaching on the entire system. There are entire roads drivers can’t use anymore unless they pay at toll to use it.

Phil Wilson compared TxDOT to a factory doing factory production. That is not a remark that would be made by an engineer. But TxDOT no longer puts engineers at the top of the management system. The beleaguered TxDOT “factory” is now in the hands of management generalists. Mr. Wilson, as he is not an engineer, has brought a different culture to the organization. Some like it, some don’t. I admit to being prejudiced in favor of engineers and other scientific types, but some would say that TxDOT was myopic and needed a more business-centric vision. Maybe I just like men with pocket-protectors, calculators, and coke-bottle glasses.

They all look more tired than they did last year at this same event. And maybe a little beat up.

Micheal Morris wondered aloud about why Phil Wilson took this unpleasant job of running TxDOT. I’m pretty sure that TxDOT hired him at a salary that dwarfed what was paid for the last TxDOT director – who by the way happened to be an engineer with a PE license. But no amount of money can compensate for the pain of being the top target to complain to – and about – for transportation. With the economy where it is, and with funding for transportation as messed up as it is, the job of running TxDOT basically sucks. It must be even more challenging now that there are fewer engineers in the trenches to oversee the complex and demanding transportation needs of one of the largest states in the nation.

“People should be outraged,” says Michael Morris, who is a nice guy and a person I respect. He is old school and has a nice face. He says that we are not taking steps to support the areas of Texas that are bringing in the top three revenue producing endeavors in the State. Morris hopes someday that Washington will do a better job of funding transportation. But with the current situation as it is, he is a realist: local regions will build infrastructure however they can. Morris refers to a layered approach to funding which translates to making many deals with whatever devils will help to pay for construction.

Morris points that the gas tax revenue stream is dwindling to a trickle due to decades of inflation and there is intractable resistance to raising that gas tax. The increasing efficiency of vehicles diminishes the revenue still further and we now see the advent of electric vehicles beating down the same roads. How long will the Texas Lege and the feds be too afraid of the voting public to raise the gas tax?

It’s like beating a dead horse to bring this up, again and again. The U.S. used to pay its way on roads maintenance up front with a gasoline tax. It was a funding mechanism based on charging those who use the roads the most, but no one will raise that tax. If we need a new funding mechanism, what should it be?

Morris makes a lot of sense. He uses terms like engineering design standards. I like type of language better than the management buzzwords earnestly used by Mr. Wilson — or his 12-step reference to “the insanity of doing the same things over and over while expecting different results.” Is he unconsciously making a reference to our American addiction to driving cars solo down roads to nowhere?

Tribfest 2014 transport posters

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