Editorial: Conservative columnist speaks out against highways

“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.”
— Christopher Caldwell, The Weekly Standard

Reflecting on Obama’s address to congress last week (in which he said that America “cannot walk away from” the automobile), columnist Christopher Caldwell penned a rebuttal in the Financial Times against the President’s plans for massive government spending — on the nation’s highways.

Caldwell, a senior editor for conservative news publication The Weekly Standard, spends the bulk of the column casting President Eisenhower’s Federal Highway Act in an unfavorable light (the Highway Act passed with strong support in 1956 and created our interstate highway system).

The negative effects of the new highway system became clear almost immediately, Caldwell writes — the word “sprawl” was coined in 1958.

Caldwell goes on to enumerate what he sees to be the many problematic consequences of the Highway Act, including unfettered speculative development, smog, the erasure of green countryside, inequitable subsidies for gas, auto, and road industries, the “erosion of public transportation infrastructure,” and the vast increase of public infrastructure costs that comes with dispersed development.

Story continues below


The big lesson here, according to Caldwell, is that “legislators cast their votes without even a hint of a sense that they might not know what they were doing, or that sums of money big enough to do your country much good are also big enough to do it much harm.”

He concludes:

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.

…The failures [of misguided government projects] are fixable only through equally extensive projects to undo them. This makes it easy to forget that there is no social or economic problem so big that a poorly targeted government intervention cannot make it worse.

In a session on the history of federal transportation funding at the TRB annual meeting in January, I learned that federal funding for transportation infrastructure projects was rare and controversial before 1956. Even canal and railway systems were built by the states through which they ran — the federal government provided only the right-of-way.

The building of the highway system, and the need to maintain it, changed all of that. Now, Caldwell points out, road projects make up the largest single chunk, at $27 billion, of Obama’s transportation package.

Despite government focus on roads, it seems that American car culture is already changing rapidly. Streetsblog reported this morning on a new traffic information study that found that “peak hour congestion on the major roads in urban America decreased nearly 30% in 2008 versus 2007.”

If we are as a nation going to continue to walk — or bike — away from our dependence on the private car, part of that equation must include a change in federal funding priorities and mechanisms.

Switch to Desktop View with Comments