A Very Astute Critique of Highways by an Editor of The Weekly Standard

Eisenhower_signing_Highway_Act.jpgEisenhower signing the 1956 Highway Act

Far be it from us to take political sides on Livable Streets
issues–you don’t have to be a donkey or an elephant to appreciate
pedestrian safety, traffic calming, and quality public space–but why
is it that two of the best columns connecting transportation policy
reform, land use, and energy independence have come from conservative
pundits? 

First was David Brooks’ This Old House piece in The New York Times, which posed serious questions about how we should change
transportation patterns and build dense, mixed-use residences that
facilitate community.

Then Weekly Standard editor Christopher Caldwell wrote a very good critique of the 1956 Eisenhower Highway Act last week in the Financial Times, even citing William Holly Whyte.  Although you have to read around the knee-jerk politicking that book-ends the article, Caldwell dissects the negative impacts that automobility and sprawl have had on the economy, the environment, and the demographic makeup of America.

From Caldwell’s column:

The Highway Act probably has more defenders than detractors. But Mr Obama should be among the latter. The act, which budgeted $25bn in federal money to build 41,000 miles of motorway, exacerbated the very problems Mr Obama has been most eager to solve – spoliation of the environment, dependence on foreign oil, overburdening of state and local budgets, abandonment of the inner-city poor and reckless speculation in real-estate development, to name a few….

The infrastructure network that came out of the Highway Act had
higher overheads than the one it replaced. It became a bottomless pit
of spending.

The largest building project in Mr Obama’s
Recovery Act is $27bn for roads, and there have been no complaints that
the government will have a hard time finding things to spend it on. The
US has big economic problems. But they have been made worse, and harder
to resolve, by a half-century in which, at federal urging, the country
was misbuilt.

Wouldn’t it be nice if Obama had come out with a bolder stance on building a national rail network?  While his last minute infusion of $8 billion for high speed rail is a good start, that sum is less than a quarter of what is needed to build California’s high speed rail line, let alone the many other proposed corridors around the nation. 

The U.S. is far behind other countries that are dedicated to a first-class high-speed rail network, such as Spain and China.  The Millenium Institute estimates that the U.S. would need to spend $250-500 billion annually for non-oil transportation to supplant inter-city truck freight and transform passenger mode share.  They call for another $60 billion annually ($1.2 trillion over 20 years) to increase urban rail ridership while reducing greenhouse gases, dependence on oil, and improving GDP (PDF).

Anyone think Caldwell and Brooks can convince Washington that the re-authorization of the Transportation Act this fall should put more of AASHTO’s proposal for $375 billion in highway spending into rail?

  • Steve Schindler

    Pure hogwash. You can’t use high speed rail to deliver goods to your local supermarket! Or get to the local hospital! Highways will ALWAYS be a part of the transportation system, forever. I am an advocate for high speed rail, but $27 billion for highways in the stimulus package is peanuts compared to the needs. This money is barely being used to build new highways at all, but rather the vast majority of the $27 billion is going for routine maintenance such as bridge repair, bridge replacement, or roadway resurfacing. The Interstate Highway System being blamed for reckless speculation in real-estate development? RIDICULOUS!

  • Steve Schindler

    PS- China is building their own version of an Interstate Highway System which will have more mileage than the USA’s system, in addition to their high speed rail network.

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