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Urban Outfitters

The Right should not give up on cities

by John Norquist

Why are so many on the Right hostile to rail transit? When I was mayor of Milwaukee from 1988 to 2004, I wanted to restore some of the streetcar system that had been removed back in the fifties. Republicans, fueled by talk-radio personalities, attacked the idea as if I’d proposed Sovietizing the bratwurst industry. This attitude plays out across the United States, in any state that has a city big enough to have or desire a transit system.

Conservatives in Europe, Canada, and Japan aren’t so resistant. In Switzerland, arguably Europe’s most politically conservative nation, streetcars and commuter trains run almost everywhere people live. Is the reaction so different here because American conservatives oppose all government spending? No, the Republican Party, home to most conservatives in Congress, has supported comparatively large increases in spending when it has held power, most recently under George W. Bush. But enthusiasm for spending on the Right seems to focus on war, highways, and prisons. Prisons and war I understand, as the modern Republican Party openly promotes itself as uniquely patriotic and aggressively devoted to law and order. But why support spending lots of tax money on highways?

The reasons are highly situational. Republican support tends to be strongest in middle- and outer-ring suburbs developed in the second half of the 20th century when transportation and zoning standards yielded cul-de-sac subdivisions, malls, and business parks, all requiring cars to navigate. The Republican base spends a lot of time in automobiles, so their representatives feed them more and wider lanes of concrete. There are always other issues on which to take principled anti-spending stands, even as highway expansion projects soar in cost and leave regions just as congested as before.

Highway contractors are also an easy touch for campaign donations. As with military contractors, nearly all of their revenue is derived from government funds. As described by Robert Caro in The Path to Power, Lyndon Johnson learned this early in his political career, raising funds from Texas-based Brown and Root to help elect Democrats. It didn’t take Republicans long to line up at the same counter. For the road-building industry, trading relatively small amounts of campaign cash for billions in government contracts is an easy decision.

But this politically motivated interference has negative side effects. In Canada, where there is no national highway or transit program, cities and provinces fund their own mix of roads and transit. And all Canadian large cities have good transit and street networks. Conversely, in the U.S., declining core cities like Detroit and Buffalo have been covered with federally subsidized highways. Rather than profiting from the investment, Detroit is sinking and the greater region ranks as a leader in traffic congestion along with Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles, and other areas with massive highway systems. Results like that shouldn’t please a movement that insists on efficient use of government funds.

One oft-repeated critique of conservatives is that they are stuck in the past. When contemplating transportation policy, I wish that were true. After all, it was my fellow Democrats, with some unenthusiastic help from President Dwight Eisenhower, who performed the coup de grace, driving a dagger into the faltering private, but still tax-paying, passenger rail and streetcar transit industries. In 1956, the Interstate Highway Act, sponsored by Sen. Albert Gore Sr., passed through a Democratic Congress. Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson played a key role, pushing escalating subsidies for federal highways from a 40/60 fed/state match when he arrived in Washington to 90/10 in the interstate bill. Federal capital for trains and rail transit was zero. Railroads got the message and dumped passenger service; private transit companies shut down.

Meanwhile, the Right has become dysfunctionally attached to a transportation system that violates its principles. Highways appropriate private property. In greater Milwaukee, systemwide highway widening is on track to cost taxpayers nearly $7 billion, while resulting in the seizing and demolition of nearly $200 million worth of private property. Even where construction doesn’t always require outright confiscation, wider highways drain the value from neighboring private property and have corrosive effects on compact central cities.

Before the recent push by the state to expand highways in Milwaukee, we took the opportunity to remove an aging elevated freeway that was causing blocks and blocks of blight along riverfront land. Occupying property next to the freeway was like living next to the Berlin Wall. Removing the freeway has helped downtown grow as young people and retirees choose the convenience and excitement of urban living. Where before the freeway repelled high-value, jobs-producing uses, a new boulevard is home to a boutique hotel and serves as the gateway to the new headquarters of Fortune 500 Manpower Inc.

Throughout much of the history of human civilization, transportation infrastructure supported a fully functioning civitas—something the Right should care to conserve. Streets served three purposes: movement of goods and people, economic or market functions, and social functions. But for decades, federal policy has mandated that only movement be considered in allocating federal tax dollars. Streets that serve as a setting for people to walk, shop, and engage in civic life are not part of the Department of Transportation playbook. Instead, the federal and state DOTs push big grade-separated roads that focus only on vehicle throughput and not on markets that flourish on streets like Michigan Avenue in Chicago, Broadway in New York City, or Main Street in Hometown, America. The avenues and boulevards of our nation have not been a priority for federal funding even though they host much of America’s social capital and commerce.

Like urban boulevards, transit systems tend to fit comfortably in urbanized metropolitan areas. Thriving in tight spaces, transit systems involve far less seizing of property, and they attract development, boosting the value of neighboring property. Unlike highways, they generally function better as they attract more users. It’s no surprise that cities with good transit have high concentrations of jobs and real estate value while places dominated by highways and without transit have faltered economically. Forcing road expansion on cities that don’t want it while blocking investment in value-adding transit improvements seems imprudent and even punitive.

Throughout history, cities—created by market forces and the complex interactions of the people drawn to them—have been a setting for the growth of individual liberties, property rights chief among them. The city-states of Renaissance Italy and the North European Hanseatic League flourished as trade and private ownership expanded and declined only when large nation-states taxed them to wage wars. Today, conservatives still claim to value personal freedom and cherish markets, but they are alienated from the cities that nourish both. Instead, they are committed to a central state more interested in crusading abroad than building community at home.

The billions we devote to war would be better spent renewing America’s own cities. Not blindly paving to satisfy federal mandates but prudently planning and efficiently constructing infrastructure to serve local needs. What could be more conservative than that?

John Norquist, who served as Democratic mayor of Milwaukee from 1988 to 2004, is president of the Congress for the New Urbanism.

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Bringing Back Downtown | John Robert Smith says there is life left in America’s Main Streets


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