Conservative Pols Hate Government Subsidies, Unless They Subsidize Sprawl

UPDATE 1/5/12: Corrects the Congressional district outline.

At a recent meeting of the city council in Celina, Ohio, members considered a request to extend sewer lines to six homes that are currently outside the city’s boundaries. Extending the sewer line 800 feet to the houses would cost the city $40,000. A new water line was under discussion as well, doubling the cost.

Should the residents of Celina, Ohio have to subsidize the sprawling habits of outlying residents? Photo: ## of Celina##

The homeowners would supposedly pay back the amount in five years. That would amount to a monthly payment of more than $220 per household, without interest. But in cases like these, the beneficiaries of new utilities rarely pay the full cost.

For a place that’s on the forefront of a heavily-subsidized brand of taxpayer-funded suburban sprawl, Celina is steeped in the kind of conservative politics that generally eschews government subsidies.

Celina sits on the boundary between two of the most conservative Congressional districts in the state of Ohio. Downtown Celina is represented by none other than House Speaker John Boehner, who has been the face of the movement to cut government spending. He’s made it clear that he thinks transportation means highways (not bike lanes) and has been only too happy to slash transportation spending (unless he can get the green light for oil drilling by raising it.)

He’s not as conservative, though, as Rep. Bob Latta, who represents the area just north of Celina, including the six homes that want sewer and water service. Latta is the son of Delbert Latta, who represented the area for 30 years and pushed for Amtrak service in his district. But his son has voted to cut public support for Amtrak, while pushing for oil drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge in order to lower gas prices. He was late to support the 3-C passenger rail service in Ohio, though he eventually did.

And Latta is probably not as conservative as Rep. Jim Jordan, whose district starts slightly east of Celina. Jordan, the head of the far-right Republican Study Committee, proposed a spending-cut bill last year that would have cut $6.5 billion from transportation subsidies, mostly for transit. And he wants to eliminate subsidies for Amtrak altogether.

How do conservative voters and politicians square their hatred for government subsidies with their city-shunning sprawl patterns that suck the lifeblood out of local governments – and taxpayers? Outward sprawl forces jurisdictions to keep building new roads and schools and to extend emergency services farther and farther afield. Sprawl induces driving and leads to more public pressure to expand roads — a vicious circle of new development and new roads. Even in rural areas, one lane mile of new road can cost up to $9 million [PDF].

And then there’s the utilities. In a 2000 report on the costs of sprawl, the Sierra Club highlighted the case of a Denver suburb, Arvada, which agreed to annex a new housing development and hook it into its sewer system, in much the way Celina is considering annexing those six houses. But in Arvada’s case, there were 90 houses, and they were extending the sewer, not 800 feet, but nine miles. The extension would cost up to $2.7 million, but all 90 new homes together would only bring in $116,370 a year in new property taxes.

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) is against government subsidies, but his district is filled with taxpayer-funded sprawl. Photo: ## Wong/Getty Images##

Meanwhile, conservatives embrace this kind of outward development and consider smart-growth and livability initiatives – designed to curb the kind of sprawl that can result in so many government subsidies and cost taxpayers so much money – to be “social engineering” experiments to force people to live in cities against their will.

As Rob Puentes of the Brookings Institution wrote in The New Republic, though, nearly half of the country’s metropolitan population lives under antiquated land use policies that cry out for revision, since most of them require low densities and single family detached homes. “Worried about social engineering?” Puentes asks. “Brother, we’re living it!”

Still, many conservatives overlook the government policies that have exacerbated suburban sprawl and say suburban development patterns are really just the free will of the masses.

In his story this week in Salon about why the Republicans ignored urban issues in the lead-up to the Iowa primary, Daniel Denvir noted that “Today’s Republican candidates are rarely city-dwellers.” He quoted former Albuquerque Mayor David Rusk, who said, “The core of the Republican constituency in metropolitan America are the growing, racially and economically exclusive ‘outer suburbs’ whose privileged status Republicans seek to protect at all costs.”

Not all conservatives miss the irony. Conservative blogger E.D. Kain of True/Slant wrote, “Sprawl is a result of massive statist interventions into our culture and society, and its symptoms are equally enormous. Everything that conservatism has historically stood for is undermined by sprawl.”

Many conservatives live in communities where no mode of transportation can reasonably pay for itself, as they demand that mass transit do. They take advantage of the subsidized rural rail service that’s partly to blame for Amtrak’s money losses (which the Republicans take as a reason to de-fund Amtrak). And those who live in rural areas get to major transportation hubs using government-subsidized “essential” air service.

The politicians who represent them, however, have shown a determination to stop subsidizing even the non-automotive modes their constituents rely on. For example, a primary reason for the FAA shutdown in July was that Republicans wanted to reduce these sprawl-enabling air subsidies. Sen. John McCain’s amendment to repeal the entire EAS program got some support from Republicans but many also opposed it. And the House plan to privatize Amtrak included a proposal to spin off short corridor trains — many of which go through rural areas that would otherwise be unserved by rail — to state DOTs.

Indeed, while these politicians defend the unsustainable choices their rural constituents have made, they would leave them with no mobility options at all except driving.

  • Willie Green

    The GOP supports unsustainable funding for the same reason John Mica diverted all national passenger rail funding into the prohibitively expensive NE Corridor.

    They are deliberately wasting funds to force Government Bankruptcy.
    They are playing Monopoly.
    Their endgame is to force the firesale of Government owned assets (lands, airports, highways, hydroelectric dams, etc.) to the private sector for pennies on the dollar of their actual true worth.

  • Anonymous

    The problem is conservative ideology trumping common sense, and it has paralyzed our country.

  • Jake Robinson

    dude, you really don’t get the difference between “Conservatives” and “Republicans” – no one could call themselves conservative if they want to spend $2.7MM to get $116k/year in an annexation deal… those would be Rinos, straight up… and conservatives will not back stupid-ass decisions like that… so get your nomanclature right…

  • gadsdengurl

    No one ‘subsidizes’ my sprawl. I am not on city water and sewer and don’t want to be. However I resent having to subsidize section 8 housing just so poorer people can live in a better neighborhood. This is just a liberal argument being turned around to attack conservatives as being taxpayer burdens but it is bogus.

  • JoeDokes999

    Funny how people getting massive federal support for suburbs are so upset about Section 8 people. Why the hypocrisy? Because they are sharing the same pie. So, if those wretched poor people get some food or housing, then…the subsidized sprawlers might have to pay their own way…or the suburban housing market might reach it’s true value, which is very low – no longer propped up by massive government support – and they would lose their poor investment. So we see why sprawlers are so obsessed with cutting other programs!

  • Alexander Vucelic

    your driving is subsidized to The tune of 40 cents a mile.

  • JoeDokes999

    You are ignoring the many subsidies you get – and take for granted. How about the $100 billion we spend on the mortgage deduction – mostly for suburban homes? The highways? How about the trillions spent buying bad loans – so suburban homeowners don’t lose money? How about subsidies for drilling, for oils wars? Did you pay for your own roads and utility lines? These are all paid for by non-suburban renters, and you are being subsidized. Simple solution: Let’s take away all of your subsidies and see what happens. My guess is the value of your house would plummet and you would have to pay the real cost of living where you live. The result would be the cities would be like those of Europe – which does not waste untold billions on the suburban nightmare – they are livable cities with good public transportation and jobs.

  • JoeDokes999

    One study showed that subsidies to poor people are for survival; subsidies to suburbs are for “wealth building”. It used to be that cities provided jobs and people could work hard to build wealth, but suburbanites want the wealth without the work; so they steal the wealth from the cities, then blame the poor people left behind who have no jobs, no transportation, no factories, no schools, and no way of working their way out of poverty.

  • JoeDokes999

    Much, much more than that, when you look at it. No one wants to look at it.

  • JoeDokes999


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