If the Center of the American Experiment Wants to Fix Congestion, They Should Fight for Telecommuting

According to a Star Tribune op-ed that’s already been heavily covered by streets.mn, we’re in for a summer long bombardment of messaging financed by local partisan think tank Center of the American Experiment. Despite reams of research that argues otherwise, motorists will see billboards, bumper stickers, and radio ads proclaiming that the only way to fix their terrible commute is more freeway lanes.

The article states the goal of the messages is “encouraging MnDOT and the Met Council to build more traffic lanes,” though a cynical person might think the real objective is to keep outer ring suburbanites focused and angry enough about their commutes to carry their resentment to the ballot box.

Which, considering the MNGOP’s opposition to dedicated revenue streams for any transportation infrastructure, is a bit of a bait and switch if you ask me. Even if adding two lanes to every freeway in Minneapolis would solve traffic overnight, I doubt you’d find the Center of the American Experiment championing the gas tax increase (or any tax increase for that matter) that would be required to pay for all that new concrete. So ultimately, it seems a pro-freeway, anti-transit position held by an organization that’s also anti-tax would result in nothing but idling engines and busy gas stations. But I’m sure that’s a coincidence.

Does it have to be that way, though?

For the sake of argument, let’s say the Center of the American Experiment is genuinely concerned about congestion in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area and wants to offer a conservative alternative to the transit vs freeway status quo. What messaging could they adopt that would not only fix the systemic problems with traffic in the cities, but wouldn’t cancel out other strongly held values of their organization to the point of impasse?

Which brings me back to the title: if the Center of the American Experiment wants to fix congestion, they should fight for telecommuting.

Smart phones are now as powerful as computers were ten years ago. Internet speeds, while still lagging behind most of the developed world, are more than adequate to stream entire seasons of television shows or engage in marathon video chats or online gaming sessions. Technically, as far as most typical office duties go, we’ve been ready to roll on a telecommuting revolution for years now. But it’s never happened, many large companies have rescinded their telecommute policies to ensure new corporate towers are full of busy bees, and some are even declaring it dead before it’s ever had a chance to shine.

While that might seem like a strange suggestion at first glance, it actually checks a number of boxes on a conservative priority list:

Taxes – The most obvious way to incentivize telecommuting would be to offer companies a tax break that’s based on the percentage of their workforce who telecommute, if not the only way. Luckily, lobbying for tax breaks is somewhat of a specialty for the Center of the American Experiment.

Allows us to do more with what we already have – If we take cars off the road (or at least add less of them), we don’t need to build more roads or lanes. That means we have fewer lanes we’ll need to maintain and rebuild in the future, helping manage ongoing infrastructure expenses.

Allows freedom to live where you want – A refrain heard often when MSP traffic is discussed is “You shouldn’t live in Forest Lake if you work in Lakeville!” And while that statement makes sense in abstract, for many people moving isn’t an easy option. Especially when children are involved, or you have unstable employment. Telecommuting makes it easier for someone to live in the community they want to live in, regardless of how far away it is from them physically.

And while not strictly conservative goals, additional benefits to championing telecommuting include:

Millennials want it – A lot of conservative values are a hard sell on a generation that, according to sloppy clickbait headlines, is killing industries left and right. But younger workers are big on workplace flexibility. While an organization with ties and muscle within American business communities pushing for something they value might not be enough goodwill to outweigh the current political climate, it couldn’t hurt for Center of the American Experiment to at least try and hedge their demographic bets.

The technology exists now – A common argument against investing in transit is that “we’re on the cusp of a transportation revolution with self driving cars.” Which is true, in a sense. But accountants didn’t stop using abacuses before personal computers and calculators were available because we were “on the cusp of a computer revolution.” Nobody cancelled their cable ten years ago because we were “on the cusp of a video streaming revolution.” We have problems now, and we need to solve them now with current technology. When the self driving car inevitably arrives, it will change everything. But that doesn’t mean we can sit around waiting for it. And in most cases, the technology and internet infrastructure is ready for telecommuting right now.

For all the benefits of telecommuting, there are issues with it as well. A workplace team of remote and in-person employees can sometimes be a challenge to manage and be managed under. Ultimately, there will be companies that either can’t or have no interest in taking advantage of the program. And while offering employees the choice to live where they want might reduce congestion in urban areas, it still encourages poor land use and sprawling development. But championing a telecommuting tax break is at least more ideologically in line with the Center of the American Experiment’s goals. And think tanks are especially good at, as Bing Crosby put it, accentuating the positives and eliminating the negatives on any given issue.

If anyone from or affiliated with the Center is reading this, I would love to hear your thoughts on promoting telecommuting as part of a traffic solution. We might not be able to agree on everything, but I think this is an alternative that could find champions on both sides of the aisle.

Matt Eckholm

About Matt Eckholm

Matt is a filmmaker who played Sim City once as a kid and then was doomed to have the least interesting anecdotes to share at parties forever. He serves on the Saint Louis Park Planning Commission, and has always wanted to name a pet 'Boondoggle' to teasingly reference in biography sections.