Been on an Interstate Lately?
By Michael I. Niman
ArtVoice (etc.) 6/23/11
It’s once again that season when socialists load up their SUVs and motorhomes and take to road, traversing the country on interstate highways paid for, in part, by poor working families who will never have to time or money to enjoy them. But this year, with the ascension of Tea Party-backed social de-evolution, we can no longer count on a nanny state to pamper us with highway maintenance, air traffic controllers, hospital emergency rooms, potable water, flood control levees, and sewage treatment plants.
Likewise, many of the destinations people are driving to, such as state and national parks and forests, and museums and nature centers, are also under threat by the Tea Party Republican anti-socialism. Put simply, this is what we get from “big government,” along with stuff that Republican lawmakers find less offensive and are hence more willing to fund, such as a creeping police state and a cancerous military industrial prison complex.
But let’s focus on highways. Our interstate highway system, for better or worse, constitutes one of the largest public works projects in the history of humanity, right up there with China’s Great Wall. Many historians argue that it is the largest public works project ever undertaken. It was the brainchild of the Republican Eisenhower administration, which, underwritten by 89-91 percent income tax rates levied on the richest Americans, built much of the public infrastructure we take for granted today. This included the finest road, water, and park systems in the world. Even before Eisenhower, federal roads such as Route 66, and legendary road trips such as those celebrated by Jack Kerouac and a generation of Beat writers, became anchors of American culture and symbols of American greatness.
These roads were built with tax dollars disproportionately taken from folks living in the densely populated and industrialized Northeast, much of it in the form of a federal excise tax on fuel. Building them facilitated the economic development of, and population shifts to, what we now term “Red States,” conservative, anti-tax bastions primarily located throughout the Sun Belt.
This Rust Belt to Sun Belt wealth transfer constituted the actualization of classic socialist ideals, with the haves subsidizing the economic development of the have-nots. And it took place as our nation enjoyed a fiscal bounty provided for by the highest tax rates on the rich in our nation’s history. Ironic as it sounds, without this socialism, Red States probably wouldn’t be Republican red, nor would they be as populated. From an environmental perspective, this wouldn’t have been a bad thing, not pumping water to or running air conditioners in sprawling, unsustainable Sun Belt cities. But that’s a topic for another column.
I’m focusing on the highways because they exemplify the socialism at the core of the American ethos—the socialism that made America as we know it possible. Hence, it makes sense that when our ethos got corrupted by greed and sickened by a perverted sense of individualism manifested as materialist orgy, that our highways, our supposed greatest public works achievement, would exemplify our downfall.
The turnaround came with the “Reagan Revolution,” when greed recast itself as virtue. The tax cuts for the rich that followed weren’t just financed by cuts in services for the poor and three decades of deficit spending—they were financed by the creation of an infrastructural debt as well. This means that if, say, a water main has a life expectancy of 50 years, and you don’t replace it by year 50, for every year after that, you are growing an infrastructure debt, bringing the likelihood of a catastrophic failure that much closer to reality.
We’re now 30 years into financing tax cuts for the rich by, among other things, balancing local, state, and government budgets on the back of a decaying infrastructure. This means “delaying” maintenance, or in political terms, letting the problem fester and passing it on to a future administration. Politicians simply cross their fingers and pray that roads don’t collapse and sewage systems don’t back up under their watch.
So let’s look at our highways—that historic remnant from our socialist past. According to a survey conducted by the US Department of Transportation, 72,868 highway bridges were “structurally deficient” before the economic collapse of 2008 and subsequent cuts in infrastructure maintenance. We’ve seen some of these bridges drop concrete chunks onto motorists passing underneath them, while others have collapsed under the pressure of high water and, on rare occasion, heavy traffic—and this is just the beginning of this drama. The same report cites another 89,024 bridges as “functionally obsolete,” meaning they are carrying much more capacity than they were designed to handle. This adds up to more than one quarter of our highway bridges being either functionally obsolete or structurally deficient. The American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials estimates that these bridges could be repaired or upgraded for a cost of about $140 billion, or stabilized for an annual cost of $13 billion more than we currently spend.
Our crumbling bridges are woven together by a ribbon of crumbling roads. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, damage to cars caused by decaying roads costs American drivers $67 billion a year in repair costs—essentially a hidden tax that amounts to approximately $333 per car owner. They estimate that another $116 billion is needed annually to maintain these roads, which is $49 billion more than what motorists now pay to repair damages caused by road decay. To put these numbers into perspective, the George W. Bush tax cuts for the richest Americans cost the treasury $2.8 trillion; that’s 2,800 billion. Even apologist estimates put this number at $1.3 trillion. And these tax cuts are modest compared to those instituted by the Reagan administration. To complicate matters, the federal excise tax on fuel, which at 18.4 cents per gallon in 1993 amounted to an 18 percent surcharge, has remained frozen despite a 56 percent rise in inflation. Given the even higher cost of fuel, it now amounts to a 4 percent tax, with national and local treasuries picking up the slack.
As we moved into the 21st century, most developed countries began to see the economic and environmental futility of investing in highways rather than mass transit and started investing in a 21st-century transportation grid. Of course, by this time, we were borrowing from, rather than investing in, our infrastructure. Hence, we really haven’t had the opportunity to have the mass transit-versus-highways debate, essentially investing in neither. Today those Americans who can travel to other countries are often enamored with the speed and efficiency of their rail transit systems, while ours linger in the 1950s. The same holds true for other aspects of their infrastructure, such as their information superhighways. And then there’s our crumbling social safety net and our defunded education and healthcare systems.
Think about all of this next time you hit a pothole, sit in traffic on a rotting bridge, turn on your faucet, access the internet, need to see a doctor, or pay your college tuition. How much are you willing to sacrifice so that rich folks can buy a third home (town, slope, and beach is their new norm) or a bigger yacht or pool, or a 12th bathroom? Then there’s that lingering question that gets to the bottom of all of this rot: Why? Why have we gone along with this restructuring of our society? Maybe next time we’re stuck in traffic we can dream of a better life—and how to get there.
Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of journalism and media studies at Buffalo State College. His previous columns are at www.artvoice.com, archived at www.mediastudy.com, and available globally through syndication.
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