I’ve been reading Stephen Goddard’s Getting There: The Epic Struggle between Road and Rail in the American Century, and it’s a great book with lots of excerpable content, but here’s one thing that caught my eye on page 170. I should note that when Goddard talks about “the highwaymen,” he’s talking about the old technocratic highway corps that focused on improving rural roads, which was only a small subset of the overall highway lobby. (The broader highway lobby included politicians looking for Keynesian votes, auto/tire/rubber/oil companies looking for customers, and, increasingly, big city mayors in a misguided attempt to reverse the auto-powered trend towards decentralization.)
Seeing to advance these watershed ideas, yet wary of the power of the highway coalition, FDR set up the urban-oriented Interregional Highway Committee (IHC) in 1941. He borugh traditional engineers and visionaries together and named his osmetime-nemesis MacDonald its chair. Its mix of disciplines led the IHC to the pregnant conclusion that highway building was not merely an end in itself but a way to mold the declining American city while reviving it. At the core of the concept was a twofer: by cutting a selective swath through “cramped, crowded and depreciated” cities and routing downtown highways along river valleys, Washington could eradicate “a long-standing eyesore and blight” while easing gridlock. The autobahns may have inspired the interregional highways, but on one element they differed fundamentally: the German roads sought to serve the cities, while the American roads aimed to change them. The variance would become startingly apparent a generation later.
To the highwaymen, the Roosevelt administration’s visionary proposals were anathema. Michigan Representative Jesse P. Wolcott warned that a “small coterie of individuals who would socialize America” were taking control of American highway policy. A member of the House Roads Committee decried the NRPB’s “cradle to the grave” recommendations, under which Americans’ lives were “mapped out, and planned and controlled and regimented.”
Of course, the old highwaymen were themselves practicing a brand of socialism – the roads they built might have taken in small user fees in the form of gas taxes, vehicle registration fees, and the capital costs of owning an automobile, but they were (and indeed still are) relieved of general tax obligations and much of the land costs, so say nothing of being insulated from the competitive pressures of of opportunity costs by virtue of their socialist allocation.
But the idea of one highway advocate accusing another of socialism reminds me very much of today’s road advocates at places like Cato and the Reason Foundation, who levy the charge of statism (essentially a less politically charged accusation of socialism, or general state interventionism) at New Urbanists and smart growth-inclined planners, while at the same time holding up places like Houston as a paragon of free market urbanism and refusing to acknowledge the massive state intervention in favor of the automobile. Of course, that doesn’t mean the New Urbanists and liberally-inclined planners in general aren’t guilty of much of what they’re accused of – after all, their designs may be different than what we have now, but they’re no less totalitarian.