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War on Cars: For Obama, The Road To Re-Election Doesn’t Have Much To Do With Roads [op-ed]

by Jack Baruth

Columnist Jack Baruth responds to President Obama\'s assertion in 2007 that road infrastructure shouldn\'t be a spending priority for government in America.

The blogosphere was abuzz Tuesday night about a video showing President Obama on the campaign trail in 2007. He makes it very plain that, in his opinion, "We don't need to build more highways out in the suburbs." America's roads aren't part of his plan for the country's future -- and this, at least, is one area where he has remained absolutely consistent since his election.

When the 2009 "stimulus package" was finally revealed, many people were shocked to find that it almost completely ignored the needs of America's crumbling infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineers recently suggested that it might take up to 2.2 trillion dollars to bring the country's roads, bridges, and water-related infrastructure into "good repair”. The $850 billion stimulus package could have addressed a third of that very real problem.

Alternatively, as commentator Matt Welch pointed out, the money could have built the Golden Gate bridge about 1,567 times. Assuming the United States doesn't actually need that many monstrous tourist attractions/traffic chokepoints/suicide spots, however, surely the government had some sort of plan to rebuild America in the literal as well as figurative sense?

Well, if you follow the money you'll find out the real story. Of the $850 billion in the stimulus package, approximately $30 billion --- under three percent --- is earmarked for "roads and bridges”. It's actually one of the larger line items in the package, standing shoulder to shoulder with an increase in food stamps ($20 billion) and renewable-energy programs (a total $26.5 billion in direct aid and loan guarantees). The rather vaguely-named "Education programs” and additional Pell Grants for college students consume more cash than the country's infrastructure, at a total $46 billion.

Somebody should tell the Occupy Wall Street crowd that more stimulus money is being spent paying for their college tuition than there will be fixing the streets they plan to occupy. This is a better time to be studying underwater basket-weaving on the Federal dime than it is to be holding a shovel somewhere. All jokes aside, however, this is a serious issue. The nation is crumbling beneath us. Can't we put more than three percent of all the money we can borrow from China et al into a genuine effort to fix the problem?

In his 2007 speech, President Obama clearly indicates that he'd like to see money go to mass transit in the cities instead of roads in the suburbs. The problem is that this isn't a clear-cut division. "Roads in the suburbs” are how many people who work in the cities get to those jobs. If you ask those people to endure substandard access to the cities --- or try to bully them into riding the train or the bus when it shouldn't be necessary --- the market can and will adapt.

The adaptation is called the "Edge City” and it's happened all over the country as people have consciously abandoned urban environments with subpar road access, indifferent property protection, and rapacious taxation intended to pay for unwanted social programs. As much as some of our major-city mayors don't like it, it's still legal for corporations to vote with their feet and their wallets. If their executives can't get their S-Klasses downtown with a minimum of fuss, they will relocate somewhere where they can.

It's not a universal answer. New York City, as an example, has advantages to a corporation that are usually considered to be worth the immense hassle of locating there. If second-tier urban markets think that they can stop fixing the roads and the public will simply herd themselves onto an arbitrarily-priced bus or train, however, they are dead wrong and they will pay the appropriate price for their incorrect assumptions.

No matter what happens in the upcoming election, state and local governments should give serious thought to making infrastructure a priority. It puts people to work in 2012 just as well as it did in the New Deal. It makes it easier for everyone to do business --- and that's an important factor in maintaining a healthy economy. Most importantly of all, it sends a strong message to anyone listening that reality, not fantasy, guides their economic decisions.

Sure, it would be nice if everybody just hopped a magic levitating train to get to work. It would give most of us a nice chance to read the newspaper in the morning, and it would clear the lanes for any and all available Viper ACRs which wish to test out their aero-limited top speeds. In the real world, however, the road to recovery for America needs to include real roads.

Other articles in MG's War on Cars series:

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