When the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis went crashing into the Mississippi River, everyone was suddenly paying a great deal of attention to our old, overburdened infrastructure, which is still, as it was last summer when this happened, old and overburdened. Now, as it turned out, that particular collapse did not result from a lack of maintenance but from a structural flaw, but this hardly makes the overburdening of the rest of our highways and bridges any less real. When Huckabee talked about doubling I-95 along its entire length, a frequent reaction on debate night was to laugh or make cracks about Huckabee’s Keynesian economics, but there were some who saw something of value there. One of the common themes that can be found among a number of different advocates for a genuinely middle-class-oriented conservatism is a recognition of the incredible amount of time and energy put into commuting, as well as the huge opportunity cost of this commuting.
Though all of the advocates in question might not agree with this entirely, mass commuting over long distances is a function of the unsettled and highly dependent nature of American life that creates the vast spaces between home and work and obliges people to rely increasingly on automobiles to go anywhere or do anything. While the “whirlwind of creative destruction” makes mobility from city to city commonplace, sprawl daily compels frequent long-distance mobility. In such an arrangement, people are settled neither in place nor really even in state of mind.
The trouble with Huckabee’s proposal is that it seems to be a kind of ad hoc alternative to even more dubious “stimulus” packages on offer and does seem to reflect the logic of government work programs, but it also shows him as someone who appears to understand the strains commuting–and the traffic jams those commutes create–puts on families, on energy resources and on the environment, to say nothing of the additional transportation costs that are passed on to consumers. Ross spoke about addressing the length of commutes in his bloggingheads appearance with Ruy Texeira here. The larger problem with Huckabee’s proposal is that it is really almost nothing more than a Band-Aid, the sort of temporary fix to structural problems of our (sub)urban life and zoning regulations, and it is ultimately no different from paving over more rural and suburban landscape to provide larger roads for ever-growing settlements, except that this proposes to do the same on a semi-national scale. As people live farther and farther away from their places of work, highway expansions are either going to become increasingly necessary to accommodate the increasing numbers of cars driving ever-longer routes or the divisions among residential, commercial and industrial zones will have to be reduced or eliminated. Ideally, the less dependent on the highway system communities could become the better, and the less need for mass commuting the better. Until then, highway expansions are probably the best make-shift solution.
The objection to Huckabee’s I-95 proposal reminds me a lot of the complaints against Huckabee’s fiscal record in Arkansas. Some significant part of the tax hikes for which he is now being demonised went to rebuilding Arkansas’ main highways. This is what the Huckabee campaign says, but it also happens to be true. Anyone who drove through Arkansas on I-40 during the very beginning of his tenure and then drove on it a few years later (as I did for four years going to and from college four times a year) knows how much Arkansas’ main highways improved in just a few years. While I can think of some traditional arguments against internal improvements that would make highway spending undesirable, I don’t believe for a second that most of Huckabee’s critics think that highway maintenance is not an acceptable function of government. Infrastructure is costly to build and maintain, and it is reasonable that it is a public expenditure that pays for it, since these roads serve a public purpose and, at least in theory, benefit the entire commonwealth.