Trombino: “System is going to shrink”

By Eric Sundquist

Iowa DOT Secretary Paul Trombino created a minor wave in the blogosphere last week when he told an Urban Land Institute audience that the state’s highway and rail system was too big to maintain and would need to shrink.

An excerpt of Trombino’s speech, as reported by Charles Marohn’s Strong Towns blog:

“I said the numbers before. 114,000 lane miles, 25,000 bridges, 4,000 miles of rail. I said this a lot in my conversation when we were talking about fuel tax increases. It’s not affordable. Nobody’s going to pay….

“We’re not going to pay to rebuild that entire system. And my personal belief is that the entire system is unneeded. And so the reality is, the system is going to shrink….

“And reality is, for us, let’s not let the system degrade and then we’re left with sorta whatever’s left. Let’s try to make a conscious choice—it’s not going to be perfect, I would agree it’s going to be complex and messy—but let’s figure out which ones we really want to keep. And quite honestly, it’s not everything that we have, which means some changes.”

Marohn’s post, picked up by other popular blogs (Streetsblog and Planetizen), praised Trombino’s words as a “game-changing acknowledgement that every state DOT director should be putting into the public realm.”

Further, he wrote, “Trombino’s assessment was both intelligent and pragmatic. Essentially, we can let things fall apart and be left with whatever survives or we can be more intentional and likely have a far better outcome.”

Trombino told SSTI the interest in his presentation was surprising, as he had made many similar presentations over the last few years. And other DOT leaders have also worked to rein in unsustainable expansions and even jettison unneeded facilities, so Trombino’s stance isn’t as unusual as it may appear. But as a key principle for modernizing the system, Trombino’s forthright and compelling presentation does stand out, and it seems to have been well-received.

Eric Sundquist is Managing Director of SSTI.