I’ve been stewing all morning over Leslie Peacock’s fine coverage of the Little Rock City Board last night, in particular her highlighting of the faith-based defense of the highway department’s plan to further damage downtown with a wider freeway by City Directors Lance Hines and Dean Kumpuris. Particularly Hines.
Hines and Kumpuris represent the Little Rock business establishment — the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce and its camp followers. They’ve declared the I-30 case closed. Build as many lanes as Highway Director Scott Bennett of Saline County decrees is suitable. And then build out every other feeder road, as will inevitably be necessary (all this to maybe shave a minute off commute times a couple of hours a day five days a week.)
Hines’ defense was remarkable and not just for his head-slapping admission, “I’m not a big advocate of smart growth.”
Hines also proclaimed he was a “free market guy.”
He is a free market guy in the style of what passes for one in today’s Arkansas. Here it’s a given that taxpayers’ hamburgers should finance the good suit corporate lobbyists at the LR Chamber of Commerce and that no business can be expected to start up and operate profitably without getting a handout from taxpayers first.
Freeways are about as far removed from the free market as you can get. They are, themselves, subsidized — particularly in Arkansas — by tax money from people who don’t use them. But that is only the beginning. Want some free market, Mr. Hines? I direct you to the notoriously free market Cato Institute. A scrap from one of their articles:
The vast majority of America’s urban population prefers to live in the suburbs. Indeed, suburban development predates urban expressway construction; urban growth followed the paths of new trolley and interurban train lines. There’s little reason for policymakers to be concerned about suburban sprawl or use government power to discourage it.
Taxpayers, however, shouldn’t have to pick up the tab for other people’s preferences for suburban living, yet that has been the effect of the federal interstate highway program since the mid-1950s. The construction of free beltways and expressways has subsidized suburban development. The “correct” or efficient amount of suburban development is the amount that consumers are willing to pay for so long as they bear the incremental costs of land acquisition and expressway construction.
To be sure, user charges and gasoline taxes approximately equal the construction and maintenance costs of major highways. But the financing of urban beltways and radial expressways from the Federal Highway Trust Fund represents a subsidy to suburban sprawl — because all highway users pay taxes in proportion to their gasoline usage, but urban beltways and expressways are the most expensive to build and maintain. And because the number of lanes of urban highways is based on peak-period rather than off-peak travel needs, the cost of constructing and maintaining urban expressways should be paid by peak users only. For example, a 1975 study showed that urban interstate highway costs averaged about 1.3 cents per vehicle-mile; however, the cost of serving peak-hour users in Boston and San Francisco was as high as 10 to 30 cents per vehicle-mile. If the users of such roads during peak times had to pay for their costs, the supply of and demand for such roads would be much less.
Imagine, making Highway Director Scott Bennett pay for his peak-use commute from Saline County. In free market Texas, they actually have turned to private expressways. In Arkansas, the poor schlubs pay the freight and, in the middle of Little Rock, suffer the division, decay and pollution the subsidies bring.
The subsidies don’t stop with the freeway. The state gives thousands of workers free parking in Little Rock, an immense tax-free benefit that few private employees downtown get. Another subsidy: Our water utility has been helpful in providing a reliable supply of clean water to suburban dwellers. Our city taxpayers pay for the police and fire and recreational amenities that the free-riders enjoy on their ever faster commutes to and from town.
This is Lance Hines’ “free market.” He declares he likes sprawl, which spreads city resources thin and promotes inner city decay. Efficient it isn’t. And it has built-in subsidies for the new sprawl developers as well.
In addition to his “free market” comment, Hines called it “Keynesian” to try to manage congestion as some creative thinkers envision. Seems to me that massive, unnecessary government investments in ever bigger freeway infrastructure on the theory that it is good for the economy (while all around us we see a city staggered by the impact of the very growth this spending is meant to serve) is Keynesian. Hines doesn’t even want to spend time considering whether a smaller and smarter use of resources that encourages private investment in the center city might be a better alternative than subsidized government free-spending on people who don’t live here and contribute little to the treasury. (Our state turnback is not based on population of workers who live in outlying counties.)
Sadly, despite the noble efforts of Director Kathy Webb and Ken Richardson, Metroplan’s Jim McKenzie and a host of brainy architects, planners and thinkers who would like to at least take a look at different approaches, I think you can bet on this project proceeding just as the Highway Department intended for it to proceed all along. The Good Suit Club has decreed the case closed. They are “free market guys.” Their subsidies are free. The little guy pays at the cash register and gas pump and in cleaning up, or suffering, the urban mess they create.
PS: A reader who’s following a national transportation commerce on-line says Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx gave a speech this morning that talked about designing infrastructure that takes all users into account and gets away from “structural discrimination” that has “carved up communities” — including the one he grew up in. Somebody call the AHTD.