Dwight Eisenhower puts all of his political capital on the line to advance an audacious notion: a national highway system. He is rebuffed when states refuse to play along. They complain that even if the federal government pays 90 percent, these will be their highways to maintain, with costs associated. They want no part of it.
That, of course, didn’t happen. The states understood the benefits of this initiative to lift the nation, and regional economies, into better days — post-frontier days, post-Dust Bowl days.
Fast-forward to the new governor of Florida, who recently pushed the “pause” button on comparable progress.
Rick Scott turned down $2.4 billion contained in the federal stimulus bill for a high-speed rail project from Miami to Orlando. Scott’s principal argument: The railroad system would be unlikely to pay for itself and would require state subsidies ultimately. (Like interstate highways, possibly?)
Scott’s decision drew huzzahs from the tea-bag core by which he secured a razor-thin victory in November. It also frosted off some fellow Republicans in Tallahassee who know the jobs and economic activity now will go elsewhere.
Admittedly, Scott’s position is easy to peddle to any interest not along the proposed rail line. What use is it to them? And you wonder how Eisenhower made the pitch to those who wouldn’t have an I-40, I-35 or I-10 facilitating speedier traffic their way.
High-speed rail? Audacious. But those who dismiss its potential, even if it requires subsidies as do airports and superhighways, are trapped in their own conventions. They are trapping society at the same time.
Scott’s hard-right constituents called his rejection of the stimulus dollars brilliant. The person looking smart now, however, is Fareed Zakaria.
His piercing essay, “Yes, America is in decline” in the March 14 Time magazine assailed the rush to climb into our shells regarding public investment.
One wonders where we would be today if a Republican like Eisenhower curled up in a shell instead of building for the future.
One thing that the interstate highway system did was truly link states into a whole. Time illustrated Zakaria’s commentary with an American flag diced into red, white and blue tatters. One could say the same about long-range communal considerations such as infrastructure and education.
“We are cutting investments and subsidizing consumption — exactly the opposite of what are the main drivers of economic growth,” Zakaria writes.
Gee, FDR, we can’t tax-cut and toll-road our way back to prosperity?
One can think of few fiscal moves that would be harder on a region’s economy than to shut down community colleges. Yet that’s what Texas was about to do until an uproar caused state budget writers to say they will tap one-third of a $9 billion “rainy-day” fund to keep four community colleges open — Odessa College, Frank Phillips, Brazosport and Ranger College. How anyone could have see such a move as preferable to tapping an emergency fund, or otherwise finding revenue to continue these colleges' operations, bespeaks a dark, backward state of mind that afflicts us.
Unfortunately, policy makers aren’t thinking of the greater good, but of individual pangs and angsts. “American politics is now hyper responsive to constituents’ interests," writes Zakaria. "All those interests are dedicated to preserving the past rather than investing for the future."
The battle today pits the impulses of tax cuts and insularity vs. infrastructure and education, and it’s a rout. The nation will be poorer for it.
“Together, the unifying forces of our communication and transportation systems are dynamic elements in the very name we bear — United States. Without them, we would be a mere alliance of many separate parts.” That was Eisenhower promoting the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956.
Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.