Paul Jacob

Here’s the new definition of “highway robbery”: When government robs us of our highways.

Today’s highway robbers are metropolitan planners, and they may be in charge of the roads in your city or state.

They are certainly in charge in Portland, Oregon.

The Federal Highway Administration recently reprimanded Oregon’s Metro — the bigger-than-countywide government surrounding Portland — for goofy planning.

According to the federal agency, “It is difficult to find the transportation focus in this opening chapter of [Metro’s] Regional Transportation Plan.” Instead, the plan focuses on bike trails, light rail, and expensive skyline transport. “The plan should acknowledge that automobiles are the preferred mode of transport by the citizens of Portland. . . . They vote with their cars every day."

My goodness, the federal government just actually acknowledged simple reality. It sure would be nice if Metro planners followed suit.

But that’s not likely. In Portland, as elsewhere, city planners are now trying to rebuild society according to a blueprint that doesn’t include cars.

And they are in control of our highways!

Money Talks . . . and Never Shuts Up
As anyone who has been involved in local politics knows, roads are big business.

In the old days politicians were just happy to accommodate citizens’ transportation needs and line their pockets with kickbacks and other forms of corruption.

Now, though, in part because of the spread of the “Metro” model of transportation planning, roads aren’t even the half of it. And money chases money from agency to agency, contractor to the feds and back again in a mad dance that makes sense only if you love politics. And hate economy.

Under contention now? Oregon Metro’s goofy long-term plan. According to a fascinating little story in The Oregonian,

The plan is a blueprint that controls transportation spending in the region for 20 years. In order to receive funding, a project must be in the plan. Metro is developing an update of the plan, scheduled for completion in 2008.
In the past, because of the complex politics of the three-county metro area, the plan has included many more projects than the region can afford. The current plan includes $10 billion worth of projects, about $6 billion over the available money.

So of course, the planners go a-begging to the federal government.

But, let’s thank our pixilated stars that the federal agency overseeing highways and the like has at least a few no-nonsense folks in its employ.

What could the people at Oregon’s Metro be thinking?

Well, it’s not that complicated. They have a vision, and come hell or high water, they aim to stick to it. The head of Metro wants Oregonians to take federal criticism “with a grain of salt.” Nice understatement, that.

The Vision Thing
Today’s planners hate the modern suburban city. For some reason, they’ve got this idea that the helter-skelter, closed-in old-fashioned city that evolved late in the 19th century was somehow better. Better for communities, they say. You could walk to work, they say. You could use public transport.

But cars came, and cities naturally spread out.

Of course, part of that “natural” was planned, too. To what extent the suburbs were “forced” on people by zoning changes, and to what extent merely accommodated citizen wishes, I suppose that’s open to debate. To me, it looks weighted towards actual consumer preference.

Take the spread of malls. That’s where people really like to shop. People voted with their feet, cars, dollars. And private enterprise built those malls, with government road planners (and private ones, too) merely following businessmen’s lead. By the third quarter of the last century, downtowns were being abandoned by customers across the country.

In most cities politicians looked upon this as a problem to be solved, not merely something to which they must adapt. So they set up elaborate subsidies for new mass transit systems, to encourage people to “go downtown.” They concocted new regulations to penalize the suburban “sprawl,” too. The developing idea since then has been to corral people as close as possible to those traditional downtowns.

John Charles, president of Oregon’s Cascade Policy Institute, puts Metro’s vision in context. It reminds him, he writes, “of futuristic exhibitions I saw at the New York World’s Fair as a kid in 1965. But in the real world, most people don’t want to live that way. They prefer single-family houses with a yard and a double-car garage."

Unfortunately, Charles predicts that the roads Metro ignores “will continue to deteriorate.” Shockingly, he insists, “that’s part of the plan, too."

Highways, Deprecated
Crazy, isn’t it? Crazy when the civil servants in charge of our roads believe that cars are evil, roads the enemy, and insist on herding us onto bike paths and trains.

But there is a method to this madness. I’ve written about it before. The planners are trying to force a complete and society-wide paradigm shift. They want us to give up our cars and walk. Or ride bicycles. Or use the mass transit that most of us in most cities ignore. And they are willing to risk more congestion to force that value transformation.

As John Charles suggests, there is vision here. It’s just whacked out.

It is, as he says, a “futuristic” vision. It sure reminds me of science fiction . . . of the socialist sort. You know, people in uniform, silvery body leotards riding on moving sidewalks from one place to another.

But it’s also nostalgic, so “19th century.” When listening to their speeches, you can almost see the sepia tint their words.

Fiction is one thing; in the real world we shouldn’t treat people as cattle. We shouldn’t force them into communities they don’t want to live in. Force them out of cars. Stop building highways just so traffic congestion will increase and they get fed up and give up and consign themselves to the crowded sidewalks and quaint cells our betters in government plan for us.

This is no brave new world. We still need roads. We don’t fly around with anti-grav paks or in hover cars. And hey: pedestrian congestion is a dystopian vision, not an ideal to work towards. In sum, it’s our world, not just that of the vision-smitten bureaucrats working against us.


Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.