Yesterday, I took a drive. It was a reminder of the single worst thing about life in our cities. I headed toward Los Angeles up the Long Beach Freeway--a spigot of globalism where goods from Asia flow into the U.S. in a nonstop river of trucks.
Well, not exactly nonstop. I spent plenty of my one-hour trip stopped cold in the rattling shadow of 40-ton container rigs.
As bad as it was, though, things could have been worse.
When this freeway opens up, as sometimes happens, the roadbed is so severely cracked, patched, corrugated and lopsided that cars and trucks alike shimmy terrifyingly at 60 mph like wild logs through a flume. This is a two-handed, hang-on-to-your-coffee kind of road. As a consequence, it's also a graveyard.
A few random facts: Here in Southern California, we spend about 101/2 days of our lives each year--or one entire year over the course of a working lifetime--at a dead stop in freeway traffic, and much of the urbanized parts of the country are catching up. We burn about $1,000 in needless gas, each of us.
And when we're lucky and traffic moves, we kill each other in mass bloodshed that makes war pale: about 15 times as many dead last year as were slain by terrorists.
Now look ahead: Average freeway speeds will drop by one-third to 18 mph in the next couple of decades as the population grows and our roads don't. And poor repair will leave highways even more dangerous.
One more fact: President Bush proposes cutting highway funds by 27%.
I sputter and grope for words.
Honestly, what can you say about reasoning like this? A friend called the president's budget "a sentence." As in five-to-10 with no chance of parole.
Highway projects already take far too long. The president's proposal will accelerate the nation's retreat from livability, worsening our daily lives in tangible, everyday ways.
Maintenance backlogs on highways already cost the nation $5.8 billion a year, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. One-third of the country's roadways are in poor condition. Nearly two-thirds of the miles driven in this country are in congested traffic.
Right now, Washington is throwing money at homeland defense with the abandon of teenagers trying to impress their prom dates. Never mind that there is something else basic to our well-being and safety.
Does it make a lick of sense, for instance, to pour $5.9 billion into bioterrorism preparations and cut highway spending $8.6 billion?
In a word, no.
Bioterrorism killed five people in the U.S. in 2001. Unsafe highways were responsible for 13,800 needless fatalities--or one-third of the total slaughter on our roads.
Priorities ought to take account of things like that, don't you think?
Or how about economics? According to TRIP, a nonprofit organization that studies highway issues, the loss of efficiency in the American economy was $78 billion in 1999 on account of congestion and accidents.
I shudder to think about 2025. I've never felt further from Washington than right now with this screwball budgetary logic that is actually worse than it appears. The chain reaction of misery will only snowball as federal cuts land on state transportation departments already threatened by a flood tide of red ink. What could these people be thinking?
In the last quarter of a century, much of urban life has improved. The air is cleaner in big cities, the water generally purer. The sprawl in Western cities has begun to coalesce into vibrant urban villages. Crime haunts us but not as badly as it once did.
But in the everyday struggle to get around, our lives have been immeasurably diminished. Our buses are abominable and rail systems in most cities are spotty to nonexistent. Our roads are choked, crumbling and deadly.
Argue for tax cuts for the wealthy if you must. Agree with the president that people do a better job of spending their money than the government does. But then tell me, how are you going to get to work? How long is it going to take you to get to Grandma's?
Isn't there something else you might want to do with those two weeks that you'll be sitting on the freeway parking lot this year?