Economic Stupidity, Or Corruption?
The Folly of Our Superhighway System
Here is an early set of findings about highways and land. Have we learned the lessons offered here? Or have we become stupider?
This article is excerpted from Helen Leavitt’s 1971 book Superhighways – Superhoax.
The Folly of Our Superhighway System
by Helen Leavitt
HIGHWAY NETWORKS AND OUR LANDS
The red, white and blue shield of the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways is a familiar guidepost to American motorists. It is now posted along more than 30,000 miles of superhighways on a transcontinental network that will eventually stretch 42,500 miles. By any standard, the Interstate System is the largest public works project ever undertaken by modern man.
When proposed by President Eisenhower in 1954, it was to be a chain of roads to serve interstate traffic. It was to bypass cities, enabling the motorist to drive from one corner of the country to another at high speed without stopping for a traffic light. Spurs from cities would connect to the Interstates, but there would be no massive highway construction in our cities.
It hasn’t worked out that way. Some 5,600 miles of “interstate” roads have already been built in cities, and 1,900 more such miles are scheduled to open by 1974. During off-peak hours these urban freeways can work relatively well. But from 7:30 to 9 A.M., and from 4:30 to 6:30 P.M., drivers are likely to whiz along them at no more than 6 to 12 mph. The horse and buggy did as well.
Serenely confident, however, that the solution to automobile congestion is more concrete, highway planners now advance schemes for double-decker lanes, tunnels, bridges and ever more miles of city-adjacent highway. In theory, additional facilities should alleviate traffic jams. In reality, the new roads fill up as fast as the concrete hardens; traffic simply rises to meet capacity.
Meanwhile, profits on public transit nosedive, rail and bus equipment deteriorates, and service is cut back. In fact, the Government’s vast investment in freeways has virtually scuttled all forms of land and water transportation except the automobile. Thus it has become essential for every American to maintain his own private transportation system, although in an area as small as a city any other form of commuting system would be more economical and beneficial to the public.
How did we get on this course?
The original Eisenhower proposal envisaged mostly toll roads that would pay for themselves. The Highway Act as passed by Congress in 1956, however, provided that the system was to be financed through a Highway Trust Fund. All Federal taxes on motor vehicles, gasoline, oil and ancillary equipment would be channeled into this fund and devoted solely to highway construction. From this account, the Federal Government would pay for 90 per cent of the construction of interstate projects. States, collecting their own automobile-related taxes, would pay the rest.
The 90 per cent Federal financing proved to be an irresistible lure for politicians, contractors and state highway officials who wanted as much of the Federal pie as possible and concluded that the highways should actually enter our cities. Washington, D.C., is a good example of what happened as a result.
The Case of Washington, D.C.
In 1944, an engineering survey showed that an expansion of the efficient trolley system serving the city would be the most economical way to move large numbers of people. Expensive highways would not be required. But if nothing was done to improve mass transit, the survey concluded, people would return to the private automobile, “a trend that threatens to explode the city.”
The report was ignored, and the engineers began promoting the expressway system. Other cities were planning them — why not Washington? By 1960, traffic congestion had grown so bad that House and Senate District committees declared that “any attempt to meet the area’s transportation needs by highways and private automobiles alone will wreck the city.” Yet, by 1965, the Washington area had received $500 million for major highway projects, and led the nation in freeway mileage per square mile and per capita. Its trolley system had received orders to dismantle.
As more and more freeways were constructed, population and retail sales in the city diminished. Taxable land dwindled as more than 60 per cent of the land in the central business district became devoted to the moving and storage of automobiles. The homes of thousands of residents were demolished, and monuments and parks were engulfed by freeways. And anyone who witnessed the mass exodus of panicked suburbanites from the District on the afternoon preceding the riots of April 5, 1968, and the ensuing traffic jams on every major artery in the city, had living, stalled proof that in emergencies the system cannot effectively serve national defense, which highway advocates claim is an essential purpose.
Why do we continue to pour billions of dollars into creating rivers of noise and exhaust gas sweeping into the hearts of our cities, eating up real estate, compressing people, cars and services into ever narrower confines? Because that’s all the law allows. The money pours into the Highway Trust Fund in ever-increasing amounts each year, and must be spent for highways. House and Senate Public Works committees simply agree on a bill to authorize expenditures to meet the Fund revenues, and Congress passes it.
Even when a city has the temerity and perseverance to reject a proposed urban highway — as San Francisco, in 1966, rejected an eight-lane double-decker system in favor of its own rapid-transit train system — the conversion of cash into concrete moves on apace. San Francisco’s portion of the Federal highway funds simply reverted to California, and engineers planned more mileage for Los Angeles.
The 1956 Highway Act provided that public hearings should be held whenever an Interstate road was planned to bypass or go through a community. State highway departments are expected to measure public response and adapt their plans accordingly. But it hardly ever works out that way. Public hearings go unadvertised and unattended; or, if they are advertised, the voice of the people is largely ignored. For instance, after fighting highway interests and state and Federal bureaucracy for years, a weary Seattle citizenry suffered the construction of a “twelve-lane ditch” right through the city, wiping out 5,000 houses.
Politicians and engineers tend to dismiss citizens’ objections to freeways as impractical, even crackpot. “The truth is,” wrote a spokesman for the American Roadbuilders Association, “the local people are not entirely aware of their best interests.”
The Public’s Interest
The Bureau of Public Roads (BPR), an arm of the Department of Transportation, is charged with representing the public interest in Federal road building. The Bureau continually talks about human values and the need to “bring more compassion” into the program. Yet its administrative task is so enormous — 20,000 projects are now in some stage of activity — that it does not begin to supervise them effectively. The Bureau carries out what Congress, pressured by a gigantic highway lobby (contractors, engineers, gasoline producers, automobile manufacturers, truckers, billboard firms, land speculators), enacts into law.
A classic illustration of what can result is to be found in the North Expressway in San Antonio. There, in spite of formidable public opposition, a proposed freeway is to curve, thrust and ram its way through, by or around an Audubon bird sanctuary, Olmos Creek (which would become a concrete ditch), a recreation area (wiping out a Girl Scout day camp and nature trail), a college campus, an elementary school, the zoo, a public gymnasium and outdoor theatre, a residential area, a municipal golf course, and a wooded portion of the San Antonio River’s natural watercourse. So much for human values.
Highway engineers justify urban expressways by noting that in America the automobile “is a way of life.” True enough. But the fact is that the Government’s massive commitment to highways has left Americans with little choice. A 1968 study, partially sponsored by the BPR, asked whether the contribution to society made by the automobile was worth the air pollution, traffic congestion, demolition of property and homes, and the loss of thousands of lives annually. Eighty-five per cent of the respondents answered yes. When asked why the automobile was worth all this, almost 50 per cent replied, because it is the only form of transportation available.
How much longer can we tolerate what has been done in the name of automobiles? Apparently there is no end to it. By 1966, the cost of the Interstate System had mushroomed from the original estimate of $27 billion to $46.8 billion. In 1968, a new act was passed, extending the life of the Highway Trust Fund and authorizing expenditure of an additional $21.5 billion in 1970-74. Now Congress is considering extending the Trust Fund and the deadline for completion of the system through 1978, at a total cost of $75 billion. If it follows through, neither the American people nor our representatives will be able to prevent Trust Fund money from being spent on highways — and on highways alone. Moreover, most of the money will be spent on urban freeways, the most expensive, destructive and inefficient segments of the system.
What Must Be Done?
What can we do to establish sane, sensible transportation? Clearly, these steps are “musts”:
Citizens and communities must be allowed to retain some control over the number of automobiles they are willing to accommodate. In September 1969, officials at Yosemite National Park introduced a tramway bus service in the magnificent Mariposa Grove area and banned automobiles there in an effort to keep it from being ruined by smog and traffic jams. Now the ban has been extended to the eastern end of the park. Surely, if the need to ban automobiles in parkland can be recognized and dealt with intelligently, civilized urban man can respond in kind.
Automobiles can be banned from specific areas of cities and limited in other areas. The carless street, successfully tried in Manhattan in recent months, is a first step. Direct rail lines to airports would be another. We can discourage automobile ownership by limiting the amount of city parking space, charging stiff bridge tolls, reserving existing lanes for speedy buses, and even taxing individual parking places.
Congress must take measures to curb the power of all those who try to influence highway legislation. These measures should include full financial disclosure by legislators, administrators and lobbyists, and strict conflict-of-interest laws to keep separate the interests of private groups and public officials.
Most important, the Highway Trust Fund — chief cause of the vast imbalance of our transportation situation — must be abolished. The highway lobby avows that gasoline taxes can logically be used only to build highways. It would be equally “logical” to put all liquor taxes into a trust fund to promote and expand the liquor industry. Since inception of the fund in 1956, we have spent a total of $195 billion on highways while spending only $32 billion on all other forms of transportation — including the Coast Guard.
Revenue should continue to be tapped from petroleum and tire taxes, but the money should go into the general treasury so that highways, for the first time in fourteen years, will have to compete with all other forms of transportation for funds. Then a state or community could request either a block grant from the Department of Transportation or appropriations for a specific project, and have some real chance to plan and buy a system appropriate to its needs.
The mass-transit bill signed into law last October — providing for $10 billion to be spent on urban mass transportation over the next twelve years — is merely a step in the right direction. As long as the Highway Trust Fund remains intact, financing $15 billion in concrete annually, we are ensuring mass-transit’s financial failure. We must abolish the Fund and lend meaningful support to our sagging public transportation systems, if we are to have balanced transportation for our troubled cities.
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Heavy-handed central government continues to dictate to local communities. What’s your opinion? Should we heed the lessons that Ms. Leavitt offers? What if we had done so 30 years ago? Tell your views to The Progress Report!