Will: Government Shouldn’t Interfere — Except to Benefit Big Highways

Conservative columnist George Will’s angry screed against the Obama administration’s transportation policy is worth digging into this morning — not just to bring one’s blood to a healthy boil, but also to provide a window on the lack of coherent opposition to expanding transit options and diminishing auto dependence.

MUG_GeorgeWill_thumb7.jpgGeorge Will (Photo by newsweek.com)

Will writes of his horror at discovering that Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a fellow Republican, is committed to giving Americans the choice of commuting by bike or train:

[LaHood] knows what plays in Peoria, and not just figuratively: He is from there. Peoria is a meatloaf, macaroni-and-cheese, down-to-earth place, home of Caterpillar, the maker of earthmoving machines for building roads, runways, dams and things.

LaHood, however, has been transformed. He says he has joined a "transformational" administration: "I think we can change people’s behavior." Government "promoted driving" by
building the Interstate Highway System—"you talk about changing
behavior." He says, "People are getting out of their cars, they are
biking to work." High-speed intercity rail, such as the proposed bullet
train connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco, is "the wave of the
future." And then, predictably, comes the P word: Look, he says, at Portland, Ore.

Will depicts LaHood as a traitor for daring to believe that "0.01 percent of Americans will ever regularly bike to to work" (actually, George, the real percentage of bike commuters is more than 100 times that) and that inter-city rail is possible for cities more than 300 miles apart (er, the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative has mapped out a 10-state rail network with a 400-mile reach).

The saddest aspect of Will’s critique, however, isn’t his lashing out at LaHood. He willfully ignores the fact that the highway industry benefits from unprecedented government intervention and an uneven playing field that discourages transit projects while subsidizing roads.

The Witherspoon Institute explored this theme last month in an essay that asked conservatives to re-think their longtime resistance to transit. Even the right-leaning Free Congress Foundation has done the legwork to
show that transit powerfully expands individual freedom — a central
tenet of the brand of conservatism that Will espouses. One wonders why he can recognize government intervention on behalf of domestic automakers but ignore the same gesture when it’s made on behalf of the road lobby.

It seems that Will would rather complain about Lyndon Johnson’s 45-year-old Great Society, which brought us Medicare and Medicaid, than consider an America where technology can be harnessed to improve both our health and our planet’s. But there’s an upside: If Will’s arguments are a preview of future congressional opposition to expanding transit, high-speed rail is headed for victory.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “He willfully ignores the fact that the highway industry benefits from unprecedented government intervention and an uneven playing field that discourages transit projects while subsidizing roads.”

    It’s amazing what people are willing to willfully ignore when the money is coming their way. Which is why we are facing an institutional collapse. And it is only the second worst scenario out there.

  • john

    Urban cores have been largely destroyed in what were once great cities (Cleveland, Detroit, St Louis, Pittsburgh, etc.) by allowing the federal government to subsidize sprawl. Other newer cities like Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Phoenix, LA grew via highways.

    Post-WW2 mentality (leading to the highway building boom) was motivated considerably by the strategic concerns engendered by nuclear weapons and hence the original name for the project, “the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.” Will probably believes that we feel safer knowing that we can escape nuclear destruction via four wheels. “Bush kept us safe and highways do too”?

  • Why does anyone even pay attention to this clown? He’s a climate change denier, his weekly appearances on This Week Without David Brinkley are an ongoing embarrassment, and even his books about baseball are dull. Will writing on transit is certainly worth ignoring.

  • Clarence Eckerson Jr.

    George Will ignores that some big metropolises are undergoing an alchemy into people-friendly places where the denizens of Gotham are clamoring for options that are not committing ecological genocide to future generations. Velocipide use is soaring. More Americans are foregoing their Hummers and jalopies in favor of mass people-movers. The hoi polloi are rejecting status quo when it comes to current transportation policies’ side effects: they favor options that preserve pristine air, heal our long-maligned thoroughfares by making them more balanced to myriad uses, and sponsor more robust communities.

    See anyone can write bombast as good as Georgie Willy.

  • “It seems that Will would rather complain about Lyndon Johnson’s 45-year-old Great Society, which brought us Medicare and Medicaid”

    But note that the Great Society also provided vast amounts of money for freeways, suburbs, and urban renewal projects that tore down existing neighborhoods and replaced them with tower-in-a-park projects.

  • This article is an anti-intellectual shame. Any honest view of our transportation policy reveals shocking government intervention in every aspect of our widespread (and virtually mandated) automobile culture. Parking and highway lobbies, wildly suppressed gasoline prices, and endless wars to maintain these prices are among the deepest and most corrupting influences in our government at every level. Yet the mere mention of cycling – incredibly efficient personal transportation that sheds this baggage – gets panned without a mention of the mountain of upside personal and collective freedoms inherent to simply _facilitating_ cycling in our metropolitan regions (where there is tremendous potential to do so).

    Ray LaHood is not talking about taking away anyone’s cars. He’s talking about rolling back the mandate that you drive two miles down the road to buy a bagel. Some may drive, some may bike, some may take the bus. That’s freedom.

  • Ditto what Erik Schwartz said. Will is intellectually dishonest. He writes:

    “And long before climate change became another excuse for disparaging America’s ‘automobile culture,’ many liberal intellectuals were bothered by the automobile. It subverted their agenda of expanding government—meaning their—supervision of other people’s lives. Drivers moving around where and when they please? Without government supervision? Depriving themselves and others of communitarian moments on mass transit? No good could come of this.”

    Drivers could never move around “where and when they please” without a massive investment in Big Government, shaping the very identity of Americans for generations (as people who drive to work, drive to shop, drive to recreate). “Once upon a time,” Will says, “government was supposed to defend the shores, deliver the mail and let people get on with their lives.” Well (if ever the case), that went out the window with the construction of the interstate system, all of which has altered our landscape and re-shaped our culture in shocking ways. As a small example, take Interstate 88, which runs from Albany to Binghamton. My grandma and grandpa used to live at 330 Main Street in Oneonta, NY until the government siezed their property through eminent domain to make way for an “arterial” road leading from the highway. I-88 destroyed the character of a beautiful small town, and the property siezure probably killed my grandfather (he died a year after his house was possessed, in 1972). And what do we get out of it? The freedom to go, whenever we please, between Albany and Binghamton on four wheels.

  • Why does anyone even pay attention to this clown?

    Because he’s well-respected in conservative circles. We mustn’t forget that his opinion in this matter is probably shared by a great majority of Americans too–conservative AND liberal.

    PS. There’s much to complain about in the “Great Society”, but comparing Hood’s transportation policies to that era of generous spending is dishonest at best. George Bush 2 spent more money than Johnson–not that Will necessarily agreed with it, but at least he spent it on things that conservatives generally approve of (wars, and handouts to the elderly).

  • Come to think of it, Johnson spent a lot of money on war and seniors, too. Hm.

  • TAS

    Thanks for a candid and cogent interrogation of Will’s predictably kneejerk complaint. To be fair, he used to seem more intellectually honest and could have been a voice of reason for conservatives. The earlier George Will would have recognized Secretary LaHood’s advocacy of increased transportation choices as a policy consistent with conservatism’s faith in an honest marketplace. Now, all we get is a rant.

    But that’s getting to be old news. What’s new is that Streetsblog has a witty new voice in Ms. Schor. In addition to a surprising Secretary LaHood, that’s something else to cheer about.

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