The Paving of America is too Much


May 16, 1991|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Concerning what John McAdam started in England 180 years ago, Sen. Pat Moynihan says: enough already. He says, ''We have poured enough concrete.''

McAdam (1756-1836) prospered in America but was a loyalist and after the Revolution returned to England and there began a revolution that would change America as much as any other country. He became a student of roads and had one of those small, simple insights that have enormous, complicated consequences.

He said only small stones, no larger than an inch, could be used to pave smooth roads. Otherwise, too much of the horses' energies were expended pulling vehicles up over stones rather than forward down the road. The result of McAdam's idea soon was pavement, meaning modern roads, and modern America.

America's public sector of the economy began, says Senator Moynihan, with highways. In 1811, the federal government began building the National Road from Cumberland, Md., to Vandalia, Ill. But no one could know where roadbuilding would lead.

The problem, says Senator Moynihan, is that ''like all monopolies, highways give the impression of a free good.'' But ''just as there is no free lunch, there is no such thing as a freeway. The only questions are: Who pays, who benefits and how much.''

Mr. Moynihan quotes a paraphrase of a line from the baseball movie, ''Field of Dreams:'' ''If you build them, they will come.'' Cars will come, as fast as you build roads. Faster, really. Traffic increases to exceed the capacity of highways produced to serve it.

Mr. Moynihan is from New York City and nurses a grievance against the priority that highways have enjoyed since the automobile became the most important artifact in Americans' lives. His complaint is that highways have shattered and eviscerated cities.

It is a familiar formula to historians: steam power concentrates, electricity disperses.

Substitute the internal combustion engine for electricity in that formula: Automobiles and trucks diffused society faster and farther than any other force. They diminished the importance of railheads such as New York, Philadelphia, Chicago. They made central cities decreasingly efficient as manufacturing centers, so jobs moved, leaving behind all the problems that today characterize central cities.

But congestion is a cost when traffic expands to cover all the concrete poured for it. United Parcel Service says the cost of parcel pickup and delivery in the New York City area is 30 percent higher than in the rest of the nation. It is estimated that one of every four gallons of gas burned in Los Angeles is burned in coagulated traffic.

When Senator Moynihan says ''congestion is a form of pricing,'' he is applying an idea of America's favorite economist (Ben Franklin: ''Time is money''). People and goods stalled in traffic are not getting good productivity from the road.

Today, such theorizing is of intense interest because it is time again to renew the five-year federal highway act. There are, so far, two proposals, the administration's and one co-sponsored by Mr. Moynihan and three other senators.

Both bills would spend $105 billion during the next five years, primarily to patch what exists. But the administration bill would pour more concrete than the senators' would, and the senators' would entitle states to shift more money from highways to other transportation uses, such as mass transit or even painting New York City's bridges.

Not long ago, standing athwart the romance between Americans and their automobiles and crying ''Halt!'' was a good way to get tire treadmarks on your chest. But Senator Moynihan and his colleagues are actually crying ''Flexibility!'' and ''Choice!'' That is a good way to roll logs through a legislative chamber.

His colleagues include Sens. John Chafee (R-R.I.), Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and, significantly, Republican Steve Symms from Idaho's wide-open spaces. Their plan to give states money with few strings attached would start 50 arguments.

If Idaho decided to pour concrete and New York decided to buy paint, fine. Such a diffusion of decision-making would mark a shift away from grandiosity, and would be a small domestic symptom of what the end of the Cold War also means an overdue diminution of Washington's swagger.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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