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Vol. 15, No. 6; Sept/Oct 2004

Transportation Reauthorization – Where Do We Go From Here?

With the reauthorization now effectively deferred until the next Congress, it will be a brand new ball game— and one that does not necessarily augur increased transportation spending... Cutting the federal deficit will remain a top priority next year. Not all of the “revenue enhancements” and budgetary offsets that have been laboriously cobbled together to justify the Senate’s $318 billion funding level may be available next year... The most straightforward way to further augment trust fund revenue would be to seek an increase in the federal gasoline tax. But the likelihood of a fuel tax hike in the next Congress are slim. Congress has been reluctant to raise gasoline taxes even in non-election years... Two consequences may flow if a fuel tax increase is ruled out and adequate supplementary “revenue enhancements” cannot be identified. States, faced with growing demands for highway capital, will begin devising their own ways to generate new revenue... The second likely consequence will be a more receptive attitude toward tolling in the United States Congress. The Senate has already shown willingness to allow states to toll federal-aid highways. The House, so far, has taken a more conservative stance, influenced by concerns of highway interest groups that toll revenues could be diverted to non-highway uses. However, if lawmakers conclude that a gas tax increase is politically untenable and if adequate “revenue enhancements” cannot be found, the remaining vestiges of congressional opposition to tolling may evaporate.

There is thus a good likelihood that the reauthorization bill enacted by the next Congress will allow the states considerable flexibility to introduce tolls on the federal-aid highway system.

Indeed, the next Congress may become a watershed in the history of highway finance. It may mark the time when the gasoline tax— which has served the highway program well for over half a century— has reached the limit of its revenue-raising capacity and gradually begins to be supplemented by highway tolls. By the end of this decade, tolls may not only become an accepted method of financing the nation’s highway needs; they may turn out to be an essential source of capital for the construction of new highway capacity.

 

The Edgeless City and Other Tales of Metropolitan Dispersal

As demographer Robert E. Lang observes in his newly published book, the vision of edge cities gracefully maturing into true city centers is increasingly overshadowed by a new phenomenon, the edgeless city (Edgeless Cities: Exploring the Elusive Metropolis, Brooking Institution Press, 2003). Edgeless cities, writes Lang, do not have the density or cohesiveness of edge cities. They are made up of free-standing buildings, office parks or small clusters of buildings of varying densities, strung along suburban Interstates and major arterials... “Perhaps most important,” writes Lang, “edgeless cities are not edge cities waiting to happen. Instead, they represent a concurrent, competing and more decentralized form of office development.” In other words, edgeless cities are a 21 st century form of sprawl.

As Lang observes, edgeless cities represent the newest, “post-polycentric” phase in the continuing decentralization of the modern metropolis. Does this mean that traditional downtowns will decline to the point of irrelevance? Not necessarily, says Lang. “People still need to be in the middle of the action and that means that at least some players in information-intensive industries will remain downtown.” Similarly, industries such as fashion, entertainment, advertising and publishing, which draw heavily from diverse subcultures, will thrive only in large, dense cities. In other words, large downtowns may be expected to continue playing an important role in the social and economic life of the nation. However, edgeless cities, — aka sprawl— will likely come to dominate the geography of the suburban-oriented metropolis.

 

Is Living in the Suburbs Bad for Your Health?

One of the more dubious claims advanced by smart growth advocates -- always eager to denigrate suburban lifestyle and demonize sprawl– is that living in the suburbs is bad for your health. A report, released by Smart Growth America and the Surface Transportation Policy Project, (“Measuring the Health Effects of Sprawl”, August 28, 2004) purports to demonstrate that people living in the suburbs have higher obesity rates than people who live in central cities. A more recent report, by the Rand Corporation, claims that residents of sprawled areas are more prone to having chronic health problems such as high blood pressure, arthritis, headaches and urinary tract infections (“Suburban Sprawl and Physical and Mental Health,” Public Health, September 27, 2004). Other environmentally correct research sponsors, notably the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, also have chimed in. The latest organizations to jump on the suburbs-bashing bandwagon are the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Their proposed $5 million program of studies on “Obesity and the Built Environment” has, in the words of the official announcement, two aims: “first, understanding the role of the built environment in causing/exacerbating obesity and related co-morbidities; and, second, developing, implementing, and evaluating prevention/intervention strategies that influence parameters of the built environment in order to reduce the prevalence of overweight, obesity and co-morbidities” (http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/rfa-files/RFA-ES-04-003.html).

But such studies are nothing more than “junk science” critics charge. The studies pointedly ignore the influence of diet. They fail to note that obesity has assumed epidemic proportions only over the last 15 years, while suburbanization has been going on for many decades. Moreover, as the American Obesity Association notes, the prevalence of obesity is closely correlated with socio-economic status and is associated with low-income populations in inner cities rather than with fitness- and diet-conscious suburbanites (www.obesity.org/subs/fastfacts/aoafactsheets.shtml). No matter. The anti-sprawl crusaders are determined to prove their point. Just how far they are prepared to go, is explained by Bloomberg News columnist Andrew Ferguson in this humorous commentary.

 



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