GUEST COLUMN: Please, just fix the potholes

You’ve all heard the complaint. “If America can put a man on the moon, why can’t it . . . cure the common cold, or develop a long-lasting battery, or stop spending more than it takes in, or (fill in your favorite frustration)?”

My current, less sweeping, version of that lament is: “If Hoosier politicians think they’re smart enough to legislate hate out of the human heart, why can’t they handle something as simple as keeping the stupid potholes filled?”

After a pothole in Indianapolis tried to eat my car last spring, I thought my column on the experience was cathartic enough to make me done with the subject. Alas, I am now two for two when it comes to spring and Indianapolis potholes. And my most recent one, just a few weeks ago, was dramatically more expensive than the first one.

Furthermore, I just spent a nerve-wracking drive from Indianapolis to Fort Wayne on Interstate 69. That particular road has never snagged my car before, but I had just watched Indy TV news reports of dozens of motorists filing claims against the state for damages from I-69 potholes.

Good luck with that, I thought, along with dreading the drive home. We’ve come a long way from “You can’t sue the king” but governments at all levels have made sure that tort claims against them are difficult to win, even when the damages result from the failure to perform the most basic functions.

And what government function is more basic than keeping the roads open and navigable?

Some of my most fervent libertarian friends will disagree with that, I am certain. Their view (which I have heard expressed more than once) is that if Company A and Shopping Mall B and developers of Subdivision C want easy access, they will get together and build the infrastructure to get it done.

But that view overlooks the long record of government’s involvement with transportation in this country, starting with the Erie Canal in the early 1800s, which more or less established New York City as the nation’s economic powerhouse instead of rivals like Boston and Philadelphia.

Throughout our history, in fact, government subsidization of huge transportation efforts has changed the face of the country.

The building of the railroads linked together the continent, in the process creating some of our first millionaires and setting the standard for graft and corruption that public officials strive for today. The nearly 50,000 miles of the Interstate Highway System, the largest public works program in our history, fueled the booming post-war economy and truly united the country. Air travel, jump-started with government mail contracts, shrank the country and united the world (in at least one way).

But all that involvement came either in support of something the country really needed at the time, like the railroads, or to make easier something Americans had already collectively decided to do, such as abandon mass transportation for the personal freedom of automobiles.

Do you know what spurred the Good Roads Movement beginning in 1880? That newfangled invention called the bicycle, which, even before the automobile came along, had changed America in big ways, especially in urban areas. But roads outside those areas tended to be little more than muddy or dusty (depending on the weather) paths.

The lamentable aspect of transportation subsidies today is not necessarily the amount spent but the fact that so much is spent either on projects the nation doesn’t need or projects that people don’t want. The country doesn’t need (and is too vast to sustain) the kind of high-speed rail enjoyed by tiny Japan.

Americans are not ready to be yanked back from the suburbs and herded into cities by a government-engineered “sustainable transportation movement.” A movement, which, of course, includes bicycle lanes alongside some of our busiest streets. Looking ever backward.

Like it or not, the automobile is the chief form of transportation and the road its chief requirement, in large part because the government made it so. That being the case, keep the potholes filled, please.

Just the basics. Not asking for the moon here.

– Leo Morris is a columnist for Indiana Policy Review.

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