Listening to Dukakis About Train Time

Who was Charles de Gaulle? About half my class of graduate students at the New Jersey School of Architecture in Newark did not know.

What was Margaret Thatcher? A similar number of blank faces recently greeted me.

Who is Michael Dukakis? I haven't asked my students yet, but I'm sure my loyal Spotlight readers know: he was governor of the state of Massachusetts and the Democratic nominee for president in 1988.

Unlike DeGaulle and Thatcher, the former governor is still alive and kicking and I saw him a few days ago at a conference on cities in Cambridge sponsored by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, the Nieman Institute, and the Harvard Graduate School of Design. He looked remarkably unchanged from my memory of him 21 years ago, sweating it out in a noble but losing presidential race. He still had the helmet of dark hair, the same lines etched around a bulbous nose, and thick bushy eyebrows. I was shocked to look up his bio afterward and find he was born in 1933, and well into his late seventies.

He was speaking to a group of journalists about where cities were (or should be) heading. One thing soon became clear: Dukakis is a rail man. His blood runs steel grey. He dismissed congestion pricing, Bus Rapid Transit and HOV lanes as decoys, meant only to divert attention from the one true path to better cities and better lives. The key to reviving cities and metropolitan areas, Dukakis said, was rail.

All this makes sense when you understand that Dukakis began his career in the 1960s essentially as a community activist from his neighborhood of Brookline, an inner city suburb, with the dominant issue the expressways with which planners wanted to eviscerate and strangle the city of Boston. Dukakis, as a town leader, congressman and then governor, helped stop the highways and then got funding to improve and extend the subways and commuter rail services.

"Now look," Dukakis essentially said at the conference. Three decades later Boston is thriving, a city and metropolitan area for all to envy. It's no accident. Basically, you get what you invest in. Spend your money on highways and airports, you get sprawl. Spend your money on subways, trolleys, commuter rail and inter-city rail, and you get dense, thriving compact places and cities that become springboards for economic development.

As you might expect, the news that Obama had won $8 billion from Congress for higher speed rail plus additional funding for Amtrak was wonderful news to Dukakis. But Dukakis, who has served on the board of Amtrak, was surprisingly sober about the difficulties in spending this money. The states and local governments, he said, are the entities in our federal system that will largely plan the projects and spend the money. And they are woefully unprepared to do so.

"Execution has to take place at the state and local level," Dukakis said, and whether it's highway or rail, (although rail seems to be worse), governments and transportation departments seem increasingly inept.

"There has been little planning," Dukakis said. "And when things do happen, they take forever."

Not only did the Big Dig project in Boston, which involved burying an inner-city highway, take twice as long and cost twice as much as it should have, but even a simple HOV lane in the governor's part-time home in Los Angeles is taking too many years, he said. Extending the Green Line in Boston along existing tracks is scheduled for completion in 2014, an absurdly long amount of time. By comparison, the extension of the Red Line in Boston from Harvard to Alewife in the early 1980s, a much more complicated project, took about two years.

The answer, Dukakis said, was competence. We need to learn how to do things again, and to recognize the value of good government. (It could have been the 1988 presidential campaign, I thought. That argument didn't work then but perhaps now, after Katrina and numerous other fiascos, it will.)

For example if Governor William Weld of Massachusetts had retained Dukakis's secretary of Transportation Fred Salvucci as Dukakis had advised him to do, Dukakis said the Big Dig would have been completed in "half the time and half the price."

Listening to Dukakis talk, it struck me how similar he was to Obama in substance and background, if not in style. While he lacks Obama's soaring rhetoric and physical grace, Dukakis shares with Obama a knowledge of government that starts from the ground up. Dukakis too started in essence as a community organizer, and in every campaign but his presidential one, I read him say once, community organizing was his foundation. If he had been elected in 1988, Dukakis would have been the country's first urban president in modern times.

Of course, if Dukakis had won in 1988 there would probably have been no Obama as president, although no one can say for sure. Dukakis, showing the ego that must be necessary for anyone to run for president, mentioned at the conference that the Iraq war and all that followed was his fault.

Why? Because if he had won in 1988, there would have been no Bush I and therefore no Bush II and thus no Iraq war. That's a big chain of causality. But perhaps Dukakis can take some satisfaction in helping create the condition for our current president who may yet give the country swifter trains and an urban revival.