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Somewhere, Robert Moses Is Smiling

“The loveliest trick of the Devil is to persuade you that he does not exist.”       

               -Charles Baudelaire

If you want to get a bunch of urbanists at each others’ throats, you need utter only three words: mixed traffic streetcar.

My own feelings about streetcars are clear: I try to think about them as little as possible. That’s not to say that arguing about streetcars is unimportant – streetcar proposals raise critical questions about how we spend our limited transit dollars and about the goals we seek to achieve through transit investments.

But every time I’m tempted to get into the weeds on the issue, I remind myself of one thing: America has spent $1.2 billion in recent years on a dozen or so urban streetcar projects around the country, according to Bloomberg. Georgia is planning to spend a billion bucks on a single highway interchange.

The big money in the U.S. isn’t flowing into streetcars or even transit in general. It never has. Instead, it continues to flow, as always, into the expansion of our nation’s highway network.

There are dozens of highway projects in the planning or construction stages across the country that would have made Robert Moses smile for the height of their ambition, the grandiosity of their expense, and the hostility toward existing urban communities they represent. If you look hard enough, you can find all the classic elements of Moses-ism still in play. Think we’re not still clearing out viable city neighborhoods to (if we’re lucky) shave a couple of minutes off a suburban commuter’s ride? Think again. Think we’re still not overengineering our highways to within an inch of their lives at great expense to the public and to neighboring communities? We sure are.

In 2014, we released Highway Boondoggles – a compilation of the most expensive, unnecessary and/or damaging highway projects in the country. In a few weeks, we’ll release Highway Boondoggles 2, with 12 more questionable projects slated to cost at least $24 billion. And just about every week now, I read about a would-be candidate for Highway Boondoggles 3.

Once upon a time, the saving grace of highway expansion was that it seemed to pay for itself. Moses’ colossal ambitions for New York were enabled by the cash cow of his toll bridges. Today, however, the highway expansion machine isn’t generating revenue, it’s sucking resources from other parts of society.

The recent federal FAST Act transportation bill, which siphons off $70 billion in general funds over five years to pay for transportation, is just the latest example. In successive years, Texas voters diverted a portion of revenue that had previously gone to the state’s rainy day fund and a portion of the state sales tax to fill a budget “hole” at TxDOT. In Iowa, legislators passed a controversial increase in the state gas tax amid ads like this from one industry lobby group.

How is the money from Iowa’s gas tax increase actually being spent? Well more than half of it over the next five years is being used to expand just three state highways (PDF). “While investment in four-lane construction projects is not repair or rehabilitation of an existing road,” the Iowa DOT acknowledges, “that does not mean they are not critical projects.”

“Critical”? Maybe. But not school-bus-plunging-off-a-bridge critical.

If there is one line of commentary that I despise more than any other, it is the “why are silly activists focusing on issue x as opposed to my pet issue y?” genre. But, after several years of deciphering absurd environmental impact statements for highway expansion projects, studying the numbers on climate change, and watching advocates for sustainable transportation modes argue over the optimal division of table scraps, I do have to ask: where is the outrage?

If you’re a citizen anywhere in the country, you ought to be outraged about the vast amount of public money being spent on these projects and the meager benefits that are promised. If you are an environmentalist fighting to “keep it in the ground” and stop climate change, you ought to be outraged that we are spending tens of billions of dollars on projects virtually guaranteed to deepen our dependence on fossil fuels.  If you are an urbanist or transit advocate, you ought to be outraged that these projects proceed with so little transparency or accountability while transit projects – even streetcar projects – must usually jump through elaborate hoops, including, in many cases, referenda on local option taxes, to be built. And you ought to be doubly outraged that your tax dollars – both in the form of growing general tax spending on highways and future debt for which we’re all on the hook – are underwriting it all.

It is worth remembering that modern urbanism was born out of citizen revolts against highway construction and urban renewal – revolts that gave activists like Jane Jacobs a venue to formulate and articulate a compelling vision for what our cities are and could be. But it is also worth remembering that if Jacobs and her neighbors had not succeeded in stopping Robert Moses’ LOMEX, much else that she and they fought for would have been moot.  

As we enter 2016, it is critical that those of us who care about our cities, transportation and the environment keep track of the big picture. There are citizens in Dallas, Milwaukee, Detroit, Tampa and many other cities who are right now – today – fighting the same fight Jane Jacobs fought 50 years ago. The big money in this country continues to double down on the same model of automobile dependence and sprawl that has proven to be ruinous to our environment, harmful to our communities and public health, fiscally unsustainable in the extreme, and ineffective in providing efficient, safe, affordable access to the places we need and want to go.

The battle to change that dynamic is the one that will define the future of our transportation system, our cities and maybe even our planet in the 21st century. It is one that deserves as much good thinking, energy and commitment – and as many new allies – as we can muster. Here’s hoping that 2016 is the year it takes center stage.

Happy new year!