The Mayans and Egyptians built pyramids. The Chinese built the Great Wall and armies of clay soldiers. The Khmer built temples in the jungle. Americans build highways. It’s our state religion.
The federal government conjures up money out of the ether and funnels cash through multiple layers of state and local agencies – each getting a cut to support its administrative duties. Private companies are hired to widen, extend, and repave endless miles of roadways creating demand for raw materials and capital equipment. Along the way individual people are paid salaries and economic activity makes its way through the national economy that sorely needs to be pumped up to keep the whole big juggling act from crashing. Again.
In the last month I’ve photographed highway projects in Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio, and California. In between flights I’ve discover that the road construction is continuous in all directions. There’s no place I’ve passed through that isn’t fully engaged in highway expansion full tilt. In theory everything is working exactly as it should. But here are some things to think about…
These homes are in an historic neighborhood in Cincinnati that had declined for decades, but they’re now in the process of being re-inhabited and revived by middle class families. Some parts of the city are coming back faster than others based on the quality of the surviving urban fabric.
This is one of the neighborhoods that is being radically devalued by massive road widening projects that are ostensibly designed to boost the economy. You can explore what this street was like before the construction began. This is the kind of borderline street that had already suffered from earlier road widening projects and years of disinvestment. It was inhabited at a mediocre level, but it could have been brought up to a higher standard over time. Now there’s no chance of that whatsoever. Consider the public cost of the road work compared to the permanent loss of productive taxable private property. This is a transaction of decline all around.
There’s an argument to be made that expanding a two lane road to a four lane road will ease traffic congestion and improve mobility. It’s also possible to promote a four-lane-to-six-lane road widening project on similar grounds. It gets a lot harder to say a ten lane road is really going to solve any problems in the same location after the fourth round of expansion. This is a classic diminishing returns situation. No new value is actually being created here. Jobs are being sustained with helicopter money from Washington. But actual durable value? Bubkes. Instead, these road projects are really just transferring value away from one location (the old city) to a new location (the outer suburbs) at great cost to the public purse in an attempt to appease The Great Auto God. An equal number of jobs could be created in a more productive manner at a much lower price point.
Here’s a different part of the city with another highway expansion project. These DOT activities are absolutely everywhere. The roads aren’t simply being maintained. They’re being super sized. Look at the adjacent neighborhoods and think about the impact this project is having on the area. The original 1950’s highway installations removed whole sections of the city and channeled people and wealth out to the suburbs. Now that a significant market demand has emerged for the surviving inner city neighborhoods the highways are being expanded to kill off what’s left. Fourteen lanes? Sixteen lanes? How wide does the highway need to be?
Back in California we see the suburban developments full of happy families springing up along the newly expanded freeways exactly as the feds intended. This is stimulus in action. “Your tax dollars a work.”
As I wandered around this and many other new subdivisions around the country I noticed a disproportionate number of the homes were occupied by contractors and highway construction workers. I stopped and talked to as many as I could. These homes sell for north of $700K. These contractors just bought insanely expensive homes and new vehicles on the expectation that the feds will continue to drop trillions into similar infrastructure projects for the duration of their truck loans and home mortgages. Remember those highway crews outside Chicago? They recently bought shiny new trucks and homes in the Wisconsin suburbs – albeit at much lower prices than the ridiculous California rate. Remember those road crews in Ohio? They bought shiny new trucks and homes in Kentucky and Indiana
What could possibly go wrong?