Will: Government Shouldn’t Interfere — Except to Benefit Big Highways

Conservative columnist George Will’s angry screed
against the Obama administration’s transportation policy is worth
digging into this morning — not just to bring one’s blood to a healthy
boil, but also to provide a window on the lack of coherent opposition
to expanding transit options and diminishing auto dependence.

MUG_GeorgeWill_thumb7.jpgGeorge Will (Photo by newsweek.com)

Will
writes of his horror at discovering that Transportation Secretary Ray
LaHood, a fellow Republican, is committed to giving Americans the
choice of commuting by bike or train:

[LaHood]
knows what plays in Peoria, and not just figuratively: He is from
there. Peoria is a meatloaf, macaroni-and-cheese, down-to-earth place,
home of Caterpillar, the maker of earthmoving machines for building
roads, runways, dams and things.

LaHood, however, has been transformed. He says he has
joined a "transformational" administration: "I think we can change
people’s behavior." Government "promoted driving" by
building the Interstate Highway System—"you talk about changing
behavior." He says, "People are getting out of their cars, they are
biking to work." High-speed intercity rail, such as the proposed bullet
train connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco, is "the wave of the
future." And then, predictably, comes the P word: Look, he says, at
Portland, Ore.

Will
depicts LaHood as a traitor for daring to believe that "0.01 percent of
Americans will ever regularly bike to to work" (actually, George, the real percentage
of bike commuters is more than 100 times that) and that inter-city rail
is possible for cities more than 300 miles apart (er, the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative has mapped out a 10-state rail network with a 400-mile reach).

The
saddest aspect of Will’s critique, however, isn’t his lashing out at
LaHood. He willfully ignores the fact that the highway industry
benefits from unprecedented government intervention and an uneven
playing field that discourages transit projects while subsidizing
roads.

The Witherspoon Institute explored this theme last month in an essay that asked conservatives to re-think their longtime resistance to transit. Even the right-leaning Free Congress Foundation has done the legwork to
show that transit powerfully expands individual freedom — a central
tenet of the brand of conservatism that Will espouses. One wonders why he can recognize
government intervention on behalf of domestic automakers but ignore the
same gesture when it’s made on behalf of the road lobby.

It seems that Will would rather complain about Lyndon Johnson’s 45-year-old Great Society,
which brought us Medicare and Medicaid, than consider an America where
technology can be harnessed to improve both our health and our
planet’s. But there’s an upside: If Will’s arguments are a preview of
future congressional opposition to expanding transit, high-speed rail
is headed for victory.

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