“For nearly seven decades, our national transportation obsession has been about maximizing the amount that you can drive. We now need to focus on minimizing the amount you are forced to drive.”
That excerpt comes from Daniel Herriges’ terrific Strong Towns blog titled “A Texas-sized Paving Problem” which argues that not even the Lone Star State can continue to throw endless billions of dollars away in a fruitless effort to expand traffic capacity. “Forget about doubling the size of the system,” he writes, “$12.6 billion in 30 years, and none of it for maintenance of what you’ve already built? That way lies madness.”
Texas isn’t alone in its auto-American, car-centric madness. Florida loves new lane lines as well, and is experiencing its own brand of highway sticker shock.
Here’s a column I wrote for the Gainesville Sun a few years ago that made a similar case:
While wandering the back roads between Palatka and Daytona Beach, I once took a serendipitous turn in Flagler County and ended up on a long sandy lane going nowhere.
Well, there are lots of unpaved roads in Florida, but this one was remarkable for the thousands of red bricks that ran down its center – most of them long obscured by dirt but many still exposed – for the space of about 9 miles.
That’s a lot of bricks.
Turns out that the old brick road was part of the original Dixie Highway out of Jacksonville. Built around 1915 it was nicknamed “Tin Can Alley” for the cheap trailers that tourists once hauled down to Florida behind their Model Ts.
For whatever reason, that stretch of Tin Can Alley never got an asphalt upgrade. It was just forgotten.
Letting roads revert to the wild may seem like an unnatural act in AutoAmerica. But some roads really aren’t worth the upkeep.
And that may be especially true in an era when politicians are afraid to raise gas taxes and taxpayers won’t cover their driving tab in other ways – witness the repeated, emphatic, rejection of a sales tax for road maintenance here in Alachua County.
This is leading to some interesting bookkeeping contortions to try to pay for the care and feeding of roads.
For instance, if Congress continues to renew the nation’s insolvent Highway Trust Fund – and that’s far from certain – it will likely opt to finance it with government IOUs for fear of nudging up a gas tax that hasn’t been raised since 1994.
In any case, even if Congress did raise the gas tax it would surely be a temporary “fix.” Several trends – the rise of electric vehicles, the shift away from suburbanization, the tendency among younger Americans to drive less, and killer apps like Uber – will inevitably conspire to lacerate the gasoline tax’s utility as a reliable user fee.
All of which brings me back to that old brick road to nowhere.
Ultimately, the cost of using the public roads will be paid, one way or another. But perhaps the political inertia over how to finance our transportation system will force us to confront the question of whether we’re already paying for more roads than we need.
Paul Trombino, director of the Iowa Department of Transportation, acknowledged as much at a recent Urban Land Institute seminar when he said “the reality is, the system is going to shrink.”
“I said this a lot in my conversation when we were talking about fuel tax increases,” Trombino reportedly said. “We’re not going to pay to rebuild that entire system. And my personal belief is that the entire system is unneeded.”
He continued, “let’s not let the system degrade and then we’re left with sorta whatever’s left. Let’s try to make a conscious choice..it’s going to be complex and messy, but let’s figure out which ones we really want to keep.”
The truth is that too often roads are built for the wrong reason – to enrich land speculators and enable sprawl development that guts cities, incentivizes suburban flight, creates congestion and ultimately obliges taxpayers to subsidize poorly planned growth in countless ways.
Moreover, there is mounting evidence that transportation agencies routinely exaggerate the need for new and expanded road systems. A 2014 Federal Highway Administration report to Congress indicates that the U.S. Department of Transportation has been overestimating how much Americans will drive – and hence, how many lane miles of road they will need – since at least 1998.
“The road goes on forever,” the Allman Brothers once assured us. But even in AutoAmerica it may make political and fiscal sense to let at least some of ’em go the way of that old brick road to nowhere that used to be Tin Can Alley.