MORRIS: Are We On the Road to Ruin?

When Congress enacted the Federal-Aid Highway Act in 1956, taxes were low, America had a balanced budget, no politician was insisting on a cost-benefit analysis for public projects and the nation was engaged in a passionate love affair with roads.Forty years later the situation couldn't be more different. The interstate highway system is virtually complete. Taxes and the deficit are the number one and two items on the political agenda. Politicians of all ideological stripes insist that every public project prove its cost effectiveness. This election year the mantra is not "more roads" but "stronger communities". And evidence continues to mount that more roads often weakens and sometimes destroys communities.Unfortunately, no one ever turned off the money spigot. Twenty billion dollars a year keeps pouring in from federal gas taxes. And the feds keep spending it on new roads. Local governments have trouble saying no even when the proposed project is absurd. After all, it's virtually free money. The feds pay 80 cents on the construction dollar. The project generates hundreds of high paying, albeit temporary jobs. If a politician is very lucky, the bridge or highway could even be named after him or her.That's all very well and good for the politicians but it's not well and good for the nation. At a cost of $100 million per mile of new freeway taxpayers deserve to know that their money is being wisely used. We're reminded of that by a recent report, Road to Ruin, a joint effort by three conservative and liberal watchdog groups -- Taxpayers for Common Sense, Friends of the Earth and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. The study doesn't argue against all road construction. Instead it makes the case that 22 projects in 15 states costing $10.6 billion are so wasteful that they deserve to be canceled.It is surprising, once we look at roads objectively, how few pass the cost-benefit test. Road builders argue that new roads reduce congestion. But in many cases just the opposite is true. As one observer puts it, "Building new roads to ease congestion is like loosening your belt to overcome obesity...It allows you to eat more and you're right back where you started."The metaphor is apt because a favorite use of federal road funds is for beltways around cities. The Federal Highway Administration plans to build 16 more. It has allocated $1.8 billion to build a fourth beltway around Houston. And then there is the mother of all beltway projects, Atlanta's Outer Perimeter Highway. Its estimated cost has ballooned from an original $1.5 billion in 1989 to $5 billion today. Yet the feds still consider the project cost effective. Which prompts the obvious question. At what cost would that project not be deemed a worthy investment?Highways induce sprawl and sprawl is costly. A 1995 report by the Bank of America concluded that sprawl has created "enormous social, environmental and economic costs, which until now have been hidden, ignored, or quietly borne by society." It's not as if our cities have become so crowded that we need new highways to help us spread out. On the contrary. Our cities are becoming empty. As Kennedy Lawson Smith of the National Main Street Center points out, there are 3,000 dying or vacant malls in the United States, close to half a million vacant storefronts in towns over 5,000 in population and almost 1,500,000 abandoned homes and apartments.Rebuilding our communities should be our priority, not figuring out new ways to disperse our populations. More and more of us know that simple truth. Indeed, unlike the 1950s, new roads are less and less welcome. The Atlanta project has met with overwhelming opposition from local governments and the general public. Each of the 22 projects identified in Road for Ruin have encountered significant local opposition.No sirree, it's most definitely not the 1950s. In a time of tight budgets we need to spend our resources judiciously. When the government is thinking of slashing aid to cities and to mass transit at the same time as it approves the spending of $4 billion to install a 215 mile concrete loop around Atlanta something is terribly wrong. In the sensible words of Ralph De Gennaro, Executive Director of Taxpayers for Common Sense, "It's time for the government to pull over for directions".

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