James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Wednesday, February 04, 2004

Separate and unequal highways

Our handsome, smooth, right wing Minnesota governor, Tim Pawlenty, has advanced a plan for easing the growing and unquestionably miserable congestion of the freeways in and out of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

It is of major concern to him because highway congestion is the top or close to the top irritant for the people who put him into office -- right-leaning middle class to upper middle class suburbanites. A great many of those people hate and fear the central cities, with their smaller houses and lots, busy streets and relatively high percentages of dark-skinned residents. A great many of them also have to go into the cities to work, however. And, no kidding, the traffic is bad.

(When I hear some suburbanite complaining about his/her terrible commute, I usually suggest that they could avoid the worst of it by moving into one of the cities’ beautiful, friendly old neighborhoods, but of course I know that ain’t gonna happen.)

So come this fall, Pawlenty and crew are going to convert what are now car pool and bus lanes into toll lanes on one of the area’s most congested roads, Hwy. 394, leading into and out of Minneapolis on the west side. People who are “willing” to pay the as yet unspecified sum presumably will be able to cruise into and out of the city with minimal competition for road space. The talk, including in the press, always is about those who are willing to pay, not about those who can or can’t afford to pay.

The state’s Department of Transportation, run by another right-winger appointed by the governor, has started talking to private companies about submitting proposals to build toll lanes on other highways in the metropolitan area, primarily those in and out of the central cities.

Such plans are supported by quite a few political liberals, as well as virtually all of Pawlenty’s natural constituency.

Supporters of toll lanes are desperate for solutions to the road congestion, and quite a few of them are stuck with the car-loving Minnesotan’s fear and loathing of public transportation. It doesn’t matter that everything most Minnesotans know about municipal transit systems comes from our own antiquated bus system and from seeing television portrayals of muggings and gun battles in the New York subways.

The toll road proposals are highly objectionable on several grounds.

A major problem is that widening the highways will further chew up the urban landscape, taking homes and businesses and creating new divisions in neighborhoods. (You should hear some of the suburbanites on that topic: Essentially they figure “those old shacks” and “those people” are of no consequence compared with their own “needs”.)

Another big nasty is that toll roads – the building and operation thereof – are notoriously crooked, and the operators around the country have proved highly skilled at corrupting politicians and regulatory agencies. But this is Minnesota? Yeah. So what?

Still another objection is that almost inevitably maintenance of the publicly-operated lanes will slip, and probably slip badly.

Why? Well, some politicians will start looking almost immediately at the possibility of converting most or all of the major roads into and out of the cities to toll operations. They’ll reason that they could avoid raising, might even be able to cut, taxes. The way to get the public to buy into that is to let non-toll roads crumble and say the state can’t afford to maintain them on tax money alone. And, of course, politicians of Pawlenty’s stripe are primarily concerned with the welfare of the well off anyway. Once the folks with money, the ones who vote and provide campaign money, are cruising the toll roads, who cares what happens to the roads used by poor people?

That’s not cynicism, that’s reality. If you doubt it, take a good look at what’s happened in just the past couple of years to health care, education and a whole lot of other key facets of life. Them what has, gets.

However, the biggest objection to toll roads is that they move us another big step toward having two Americas, one for those who have plenty of money and the other for everybody else.

If we create separate infrastructures for the rich and poor, they are not going to be equal. The Audis will cruise, the old beaters will bounce and break on lousy roads, and the disdain and even hatred of the two sets of drivers, each for the other, will grow. That’s not what our country’s founders conceived, it’s not the way it is supposed to be in this purported home of the free. We’re supposed to have one government, one set of rules and services for all.

A small aside: Tim Pawlenty was very recently and very suddenly converted from an enemy of public transit into a supporter of some commuter rail service. I have no clue as to what was behind that conversion or where it’s going. It did not take place in public.