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Listening to Dukakis About Train Time

Alex Marshall / May 07 2009

For Release Sunday, May 10, 2009

Alex MarshallIf you’re one of my graduate students–or, I suspect, any American under 40–you’re unlikely to recognize the name of Michael Dukakis.

But Dukakis was the 1988 Democratic nominee for the presidency. And a lot more. He was twice elected governor of Massachusetts. Most governors had usually “presided,” letting their cabinet officers go their separate ways; Dukakis by contrast was the first governor ever to form a development cabinet focused on specific goals, led by revival of historic Lowell and all the Bay State’s declining older industrial cities.

Many political observers scoff at Dukakis, noting only how he frittered away a strong early lead against George H.W. Bush in his presidential bid.

But Dukakis has never lost his fire for public causes, as I noted at a recent conference on cities in Cambridge sponsored by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, the Nieman Foundation, and the Harvard Graduate School of Design. He looked remarkably unchanged from my memory of him from his White House race 21 years ago. He still had the helmet of dark hair, the same lines etched around a bulbous nose, and thick bushy eyebrows. At 76, he’s still a bundle of convictions and energy.

Dukakis was speaking to a group of journalists about where cities were (or should be) heading. One thing soon became clear: Above all else, 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, says Dukakis, is rail.

All this makes sense when you understand that Dukakis began his career in the 1960s as a community activist and then state legislator from his neighborhood of Brookline, an inner city streetcar suburb. He fought the expressways with under which planners appeared ready to eviscerate and strangle the historic urban fabric, and then as governor pressed for funding to improve and extend the subways and commuter rail services.

Just look at the stunning dividends now, three decades later, Dukakis claimed at the conference. Boston is thriving, a city and metropolitan area for all to envy. It’s no accident, he suggested: 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.

And even as governor, Dukakis rode the “Green Line” to his workplace on Beacon Hill. Later, he served several years as vice chairman of the Amtrak board, constantly urging a robust American passage rail system.

As you might expect, the news that Obama had won $8 billion from Congress for higher speed rail, plus additional funding for Amtrak, was exciting news for Dukakis. But this erstwhile politico was markedly sober about the difficulties in spending this money. The state and local governments that actually carry out construction projects, he said, are tolerating huge, multi-year delays. Boston’s “Big Dig,” initially conceived by Fred Salvucci, Dukakis’ transportation director, did become the poster child for delay, cost overrun and poor construction. But Dukakis argues that if his successor, Gov. William Weld, had retained Dukakis’s secretary of Transportation Fred Salvucci as Dukakis had advised him to do, the Big Dig would have been completed in “half the time and half the price.”

Today, argues Dukakis, the pattern of drawn-out construction has become a pervasive pattern. Even a simple HOV lane in his wintertime home in Los Angeles, he said, is taking years to complete. A modest extension of the Green Line in Boston won’t be completed until 2014, an absurdly long amount of time. By comparison, said Dukakis, the extension of the Red Line in the early 1980s, a much more complicated project, took about two years.

The cure, said Dukakis, is competence: to learn to undertake great projects again, and to value quality government. (Dukakis’ focus on competence reminded me–wasn’t that his theme in the 1988 presidential campaign? It lacked political glitz, but after Katrina and numerous other fiascos, maybe Americans will listen more.)

Listening to Dukakis talk, I was struck by parallels to Obama. Dukakis lacks Obama’s soaring rhetoric and physical grace. But he shares with Obama a knowledge of government that starts from the ground up. Both, indeed, were community organizers before entering politics.

If he’d been elected in 1988, Dukakis suggests, there’d have been no Bush I, therefore no Bush II, and consequently II, no Iraq war. It’s a rather strained chain of causality. Yet if Obama delivers swifter trains and urban renewal for America, Dukakis will be entitled to bask in the deliverance of his long-delayed agenda.

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