Last week it was Mattress Mac weighing in against the proposed plan while this week Ed Wulfe editorialized in favor. Both articles are (sadly) hidden behind the Chron's newly installed pay-wall* which means that only a fraction of Houstonians will read, or pay any attention, to either piece. It also illustrates everything that's wrong with the debate in Houston surrounding transit issues, and why only one set of ideas is seriously considered.
So far, I've seen references to McIngvale's opinion piece use "screed" and "diatribe" and a host of other words designed to make him seem as if he's some wild-eyed Luddite attempting to stop any and all progress in our fair city. Fortunately, for most, these things have been limited to bloggers and organizations to whom few pay attention, and who don't really add anything meaningful to the conversation in the first place. Ed Wulfe on the other hand is described as even-handed, transformative and dare I say it, world class in his vision for the region. Where McIngvale is self-serving and underhanded, Wulfe is a benevolent benefactor of the Houston region who's certainly not hoping to pad his wallet through increased development.
This is the problem with most of the discussions in Houston surrounding mobility and other issues. If a person does not support the key-tenants of the sardine-urbanists then they're either misstating their argument intentionally, or just evil/stupid/moronic etc. and are trying to fleece the Houston population. It's a land where factual statements are derided through the mis-use of context, through the creation of straw-men and through many a logical fallacy that would give an ancient Greek debater the hives.
It's not a debate strategy that's designed to find the "best" solution, but to advocate for one single solution. Houston might have a stereo of opinions, but in our news and commentary outlets one of the speakers is definitely blown.
Even worse, it's becoming increasingly clear that the debate over HoustonFuture is increasingly being conducted on the fringes, either behind pay-walls in the old media which few read, or in partisan blogs (yes, like this one, I'm aware of this) that are nothing more than glorified echo chambers where finding intelligent, decent commentary is akin to finding a gold nugget on the Kalahari. It's because of this reason I'm considering shutting down the comments function on this blog. I get a few good ones (Stephen Seagrave's comment on the IAH Terminal B expansion is an example) but most are lame attempts at personal attacks because I have the audacity to not want to move inside the Loop and give up my yard, or think that enormous sums of taxpayer money should go to subsidize the play-things for that thin slice of the community who continually wish that Houston was Portland.
It was said that, during the recent Presidential election, the biggest Google search on election day was "Who's running for President in 2012" While it's true that this is a sad commentary on where we stand in 'Merica today, I wonder what the vast majority would say if you asked them what a "complete street" was? Or, how many miles MetroRail ran? Or how much all of the sardine-urbanist's new plans were going to cost, and what the trade-off would be? Looking at it another way, what would be their answer if you explained to them how much concrete would need to be poured (and at what cost) to handle the increased vehicle traffic if Metro is allowed to shut-up shop and stop providing any public transportation whatsoever?
What seems to be missing from any of this is a centrist view. I admit you're probably not going to find that here (I'm as anti-inner-city-at-grade rail, sardine urbanist as they come) but it really doesn't seem that you're going to find it anywhere at all. At lest, not in Houston, a city where bloggers can win multiple awards for ripping off huge pieces of journalism and then adding "we'll see what happens" or where organizations that consider themselves 'news agencies'** can post 1/2 naked pictures of women one moment, misspell the name of the Texas Speaker of the House the next and then demand that we take them seriously.
And I haven't even made it to the former newspaper of record yet.
The fact is, Houston has a discussion problem. It's a problem that's driven by our lack of integration among the different communities and the maddening need for people to personalize political issues. A loss is no longer just a loss, it's a statement of personal failure. A win is not just an election outcome, but it's been morphed by the small-minded and gormless into a personal triumph over one's political opposites. These things have somehow become personal vindications for those with very tight world-views.
In other words, partisan political bloggers and amateur pundits. Unfortunately, they're driving most of the debate these days and that's a problem. With the collapse of the professional media here it's much more a problem in Houston. I'm not sure what the fix is going to be.
*As pointed out to me via e-mail, ChronBlog has now moved both of these pieces to their "free" site so they're searchable on Chron.com. Adding to the confusion of what the Chron is trying to do with their pay-site.
**Yet another big problem is the confusion between what is a blog and what is a news agency, and expecting the former to live up to the standards of the latter. You will rarely, if ever, see me chastise a blogger, working on a budget of zero (usually) for a misspelling or something along those lines. However, media outlets are different. The media has budgets and income and editors. There's no excuse for them to be making simple spelling errors and errors in grammar. A blogger's editor is usually a quick electronic spell-check and (possibly) one quick read-through. That's not to excuse grievous errors, or to ignore repeated spelling errors, but the bar should be somewhat lower.