I just started reading Paving the Way: New York Road Building and the American State, 1880-1956by Michael R. Fein, and though I don’t have time to talk as much about it as I’d like, I will say that I’m only a couple pages in and I can already tell it’s going to be great. Its thesis is essentially that the development of the road building bureaucracy was as important as the New Deal, if not more so, in shaping 20th century political development (this may be something that liberal urbanists, who otherwise support the expansion of the state, don’t want to hear). There’s much I’d like to excerpt, but I’ll stick with this paragraph in the introduction:
Engineers framed their decisions in the language of scientific rationality and professional expertise. But these were merely forms of political expression that advanced their traffic-service vision of highway planning. Though New York’s road-building program predated mass automobility, engineers quickly seized on the phenomenon as a means of cementing their political legitimacy. Traffic censuses became the main foundational beam to engineers’ authority, a scientific measurement of public demand for highways that was difficult to contest [ed. note: reminds me of the Texas Transportation Institute]. As long as state highway construction focused on the improvement of existing roads, dissent was weakly expressed. As engineering projects increased in scale, impact, and potential for controversy, resistance spiked. It was in the process of responding to increased opposition that strong tensions developed between engineers’ service to their professional agenda (building a better highway system) and their responsibility to the public (balancing highway construction with other aspects of social development). These interests, once operating in tandem and instrumental to the engineers’ rise to power, began over time to feed conflict and meet with cross-purposes. The engineers’ solution to this problem was to stop treating motorists as citizens and start treating them as consumers, who paid “user fees” through motor fuel taxes and registration fees that were then dedicated toward the maintenance and expansion of the highway system. The adoption of this “motorist-consumer” logic suggests the extent to which highway engineers sought to crowd out dissenting political voices, diminishing the public nature of highways whilte interpreting the simple act of driving as an unqualified endorsement of the highway program.
Has anyone else ever read this book, or otherwise have anything to say about it? Is the author overstating the purpose of user fees?