August 31, 2004

New Jersey double-header

After too many weekends devoted to productive house-drudgery, tt was a two-movie weekend for Gwen and me.

On Friday, we saw Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle. Some simplify this down to a pot-humor movie, others point out the significance of having the audience identify with Asian-American leads. Both are fair points, I suppose, but the movie mostly made me think of After Hours: a surreal overnight journey. With pot and low humor, yeah. Anyhow, it’s very funny, and falls into my “much better than it needs to be” category.

Number two on our viewing list was Garden State, also a surreal trip through New Jersey in its own way, but a story driven much more by characters than situations. And although it has plenty of funny moments, the movie isn’t a comedy. It’s more complex than that, and so is my reaction to it. While it’s worth seeing, there’s a lot about it that seems out of kilter. The lead character (played by the writer/director) moves through life with his emotional affect tamped down by pharmaceuticals; in some ways, that’s how the whole movie felt. Perhaps this was intentional, but in many cases, I suspect its the result of hack editing. Characters become important without the audience knowing whether we’re suppose to like them or not (and I don’t think this is an intentional effort to keep the audience off-balance), and characters develop strong relationships without the audience seeing how strong they are. Symbolically freighted elements–like a boat out of water at the bottom of a quarry–parade before us with no particular relevance to the rest of the picture. So the audience feels these events and tableaux pass by without really getting emotionally engaged in them, just mildly amused. But there’s still plenty to like: the dialog is good, the surreal quality is interesting, and Natalie Portman is a superstar waiting to happen.

One thing about Garden State that struck me was the soundtrack. Almost every incidental song was something I know and like; at least half are already in my music collection. “Damn, they have just nailed my demographic/psychographic makeup here!” I said to myself, and it annoyed me: as Douglas Coupland wrote, “I am not a target market.”

Toll roads

Talk of toll roads have been much in the air around Austin lately, after CAMPO proposed a plan to convert segments of almost every area highway into a toll road.

Proposed tollroads map

(source: CAMPO “Adopted Tollroads Amendments.” Click for larger version)

My visceral reaction to this was negative, which surprised me: I’ve always been in favor of less driving, less sprawl, and honest road-pricing. Toll roads are consistent with all of these goals. So I decided to give the matter more thought, and I’m still against it in this case. Why?

Tolls seem to be imposed for one of a few reasons: to ration access to overused facilities (Singapore and London have applied road-pricing to downtown roads), to pay for expensive infrastructure, such as bridges, and as a general revenue-enhancement trick. The first two of these are reasonable, the last is unsurprising but infuriating. None of these apply to the current plan, except for the third, in an oblique way.

Although this plan issues from CAMPO, it benefits the Texas Department of Transportation. CAMPO is acting as TxDOT’s fall-guy. It is important to understand a few things about TxDOT:

  1. TxDOT does not exist primarily to improve general transportation in Texas: if it doesn’t involve new-road construction, they’re not particularly interested.
  2. TxDOT does not exist to maximize road-transport efficiency in Texas: they are really the Texas Department of Corporate Welfare for Construction Companies.
  3. TxDOT is the only state or local organization that takes planning seriously. Unfortunately, their planning reflects their warped perspectives. Other state and local agencies take their planning cues from TxDOT.

In most cases where toll roads are introduced, there’s a toll-free alternative. The CAMPO plan is no exception: new segments of non-tolled roads will be built alongside the tolled sections to be introduced. In other words, TxDOT gets to build more roads. So this is a boondoggle. It also means we’ll have the environmental fights over more green land getting paved over–in theory, this means there might not be untolled alternatives to the tolled sections. Assuming there are, though, one wonders how many people will use the toll roads. And the whole project promises to be expensive: $1.7 billion. Perhaps the tolls will pay for that. I wonder.

Another reason is the bait-n-switch feeling the plan leaves in my mouth. Although I live in central Austin, and live most of my life in central Austin, even I find myself increasingly dragged to the fringes of the city because that’s where so much retail has moved to. Austin, for worse (definitely not for better) has grown up with a sprawl-oriented model of development, and everyone who lives here (short of Amy Babich) in some way must accommodate that. Now CAMPO tells us, now that we’ve been suckered into this topology, that we’ll have to pay for that trip out to the Salt Lick, down to my friend’s place in Oak Hill, over to the bike store on 360, out to the UPS station.

Finally, most people don’t like pay-as-you-go. We don’t want to think about the money being taken away from us each time we use a service: we’d rather pay a big upfront fee (even if it’s more than we’d otherwise pay) and not have to worry about it after that. While some moderation in road use would certainly be a good thing, demand for the roads is probably more inelastic than a smoker’s demand for cigs.