Highway to hell revisited
By Christopher Caldwell
Published: February 27 2009 19:19 | Last updated: February 27 2009 19:19
“History reminds us,” President Barack Obama told both houses of the US Congress on Tuesday night, “that at every moment of economic upheaval and transformation, this nation has responded with bold action and big ideas.” By “the nation”, Mr Obama means “the government”. We can tell by the episodes he uses to make his point: the establishment of universal public education, the GI Bill of Rights and – alluded to but not named – the Highway Act of 1956, at the time of its passage the largest public works project in US history.
Mr Obama’s praise for the Highway Act is disturbing. In arguments over his stimulus package and his preliminary budget released on Thursday, Republicans have made the lazy assumption that government intervention in the economy can never succeed. Mr Obama shows signs of the opposite error – believing it can never fail.
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.
A lot of people complain today about the rump of Republican disbelievers in Keynes, feckless though they may be, who fiddle while Rome burns. There was no hint of such heresy in 1956. The Senate passed the bill 89-1. Otherwise, the political climate bore some resemblance to our own: conformism bred of confusion. A 40,000 mile highway network had been on the wish list of the armed forces since 1944. Eisenhower was a big backer, and had hopes of justifying it as a stimulus during the recession of 1954. That downturn was long past when the bill came to a vote, but the vested interests remained, and so did the fear that one’s constituents might think it a bit communist to vote against a highway bill.
Eisenhower had brought in General Lucius Clay, architect of the Berlin Airlift and a board member of General Motors, to make the pitch for an earlier version. The US required highways, General Clay said, “to disperse our factories, our stores, our people; in short, to create a revolution in living habits”. The bill, for all its expense, seemed a no-brainer, and 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.
In 1958, the great journalist William Whyte coined the term “sprawl”, in an article for Fortune. He noted with horror that, a mere two years after the Highway Act, “already huge patches of once green countryside have been turned into vast, smog-filled deserts that are neither city, suburb, nor country.” Developments were concentrated in random political no-man’s-lands near interchanges and exits. Road lobbyists and real estate developers colluded against meaningful regulation and planning, with the result, Whyte wrote, that “development is being left almost entirely in the hands of the speculative builder”.
As the historian Owen Gutfreund wrote in 20th-Century Sprawl (Oxford, 2004), even before the passage of the Highway Act, most US highway spending was promoted by industry lobbies masquerading as consumer-advocacy groups, such as the National Highway Users’ Conference. The result was a distorted market and tax system. Just as today’s internet businesses get more favourable tax treatment than bricks-and-mortar shops, highways were effectively subsidised. Sales taxes on autos were made tax deductible. Gasoline taxes were specially earmarked to road building (as they still are).
The Act speeded up the erosion of public transportation infrastructure, which the federal government is now spending dearly to revive. Freight trains had to compete against trucks that sped along taxpayer-funded roads. Highways marred the landscape. Some of the prettiest neighbourhoods in the US – Mt Adams in Cincinnati, the North End of Boston – were effectively walled off from the cities they once belonged to, and the encirclement of Detroit’s neighbourhoods by highways is often cited as a primary cause of its decline. Plans for a superhighway to be laid right through the heart of San Francisco were blocked only due to massive local protests.
Whyte warned that sprawl was not just bad aesthetics but bad economics. A subtler and more serious problem than blight was that, for local authorities, the cost of providing utilities and other services was exorbitant. “There is not only the cost of running sewers and water mains and storm drains out to Happy Acres,” Whyte wrote, “but much more road, per family served, has to be paved and maintained.” 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.
There is an inherent bias in favour of government projects. The successes can be mythologised through commemoration, goading future generations to imitate them. The failures 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.
The writer is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard