I Blame Rachel Maddow for Suburban Sprawl

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Whether it’s looking longingly at the Hoover Dam or describing infrastructure as “sexy,” (I feel sorry for her partner) the host of MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow show, whose ratings are on the decline, has a clear hard-on for public works projects.

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Just listen to a recent show: US failure to maintain infrastructure betrays national legacy. But just what is the legacy of government-funded infrastructure in the US?

The irony is that government-funded infrastructure effectively subsidizes the bane of urban liberals’ existence: suburban sprawl and “white flight.” When you subsidize something, you get more of it. And in this case that “it” is living far away from your job and driving a lot.

Government-provided infrastructure means we all pay for roads and bridges, whether or not we use them. Does Maddow love the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act? It subsidized a million suburbs, moving tax dollars out of cities and contributing to urban decay. It also enabled southern states to build highways which were located deliberately to isolate black neighborhoods from goods and services.

Politicians in my former home, Birmingham, Alabama, enacted racist zoning laws, the implementation of which was funded by the post–World War II interstate highway system.

Practically speaking, making individual drivers pay to use roads disincentivizes driving. There’s an element of pay-for-use in gasoline taxes, which go to highway maintenance. But it makes up such a small percentage of the price of gasoline, which itself is highly subsidized, that it provides no real driving disincentive.

The same is true for public utilities. The US government is responsible for getting electricity out to the ‘burbs, financed, in part, by city dwellers. If those individuals who chose to live in the boonies had to pay for their wiring themselves, you can bet there’d be fewer kids living out in the woods. Even long after the wires have reached BFE, they still have to be maintained, and it still costs more to move electricity long distances than short distances. Public utilities don’t charge users who live far from the source more than users who live closer, removing that incentive to live close, and encouraging sprawl.

As Cato’s Howard P. Wood put it: “The financing of urban beltways and radial expressways from the Federal Highway Trust Fund represents a subsidy to suburban sprawl.”

I grew up running through fields and driving 4-wheelers around our ponds. The idea that “liberals” would try to force people to live crammed together to save the environment irked me to no end. “People like living spread apart!” I said, because my dad bemoaned the fact that he could see his neighbor’s house from his, and because so many people buy houses in the suburbs.

But our suburban way of life is heavily subsidized by exactly the kinds of programs Rachel Maddow loves. People may not “like” living in the ‘burbs nearly so much when faced with the full costs. And subsidizing sprawl might just be killing us, along with the environment. Despite how much I loved it as a kid, there’s lots of evidence sprawl makes people less healthy and even makes their marriages less happy.

The solution to all this is so simple even Rachel Maddow should be on board: Make people pay for the electricity and transportation they use. In this way, suburban sprawl actually has to fairly compete with urban density, instead of getting a big boost from the state.