Friday, May 29, 2015

Highways, congestion and a power broker's lessons

Frontispiece of The Power Broker maps Moses' roads, bridges, parks and playgrounds. 
The headline in this morning's newspaper could not have been more appropriate for the day I have to, at long last and reluctantly, return to the UNC Charlotte library my copy of Robert A. Caro's The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.

I checked it out in September 2013. It's roughly the size of a cinder block and just as heavy, and the librarians graciously let me keep renewing it, since apparently no one else wanted the tome. Which is sad. Published in 1974, it should be required reading for anyone studying public administration, transportation, planning, urban studies, political science, sociology and journalism. I finally finished it a few months ago but after so long it felt almost like a family pet and I didn't want to part with it.

The headline today: N.C. DOT says Monroe Bypass construction has started. The article by Steve Harrison notes a lawsuit over the project is still active, and it could well be stopped for a second time.

As it happens, one of Robert Moses' faithful techniques for getting money for his projects was to start work on them
with only part of the funds he needed  having promised, of course, that the funds in hand would fully cover the cost. Then, when the money well ran dry, he'd successfully argue that so much money had already been spent it would be a waste not to finish the project, and he'd get more millions from the city or the state.  I suspect someone at N.C. DOT has read The Power Broker, or at least absorbed some of its lessons about how Moses extracted public money for his projects.

The Monroe bypass will be a state-funded toll road intended to "relieve congestion" on Monroe's existing U.S. 74 bypass, a highway built to keep traffic congestion out of downtown Monroe. Today, of course, downtown Monroe has no traffic congestion to speak of, since the city and county allowed so much congestion-generating development on U.S. 74 that it successfully sucked all the economic energy out of downtown and into a now-fading enclosed shopping mall and a series of strip centers, fast-food restaurants and chain businesses each with its own separate, congestion-generating driveway. Monroe's old bypass is like virtually every other bypass built in America in the past 50 years: clotted with traffic and deteriorating, cheaply built structures.

The sad irony of the Monroe Bypass proposal  not to mention Charlotte's own Interstate 485 outer loop bypass highway (which will finally be completed in about a week), its own version of U.S. 74 a.k.a. Independence Boulevard, Gaston County's proposed Garden Parkway, and a dozen other projects I could mention in North Carolina alone – is that planners figured out as early as the 1930s that building highways was not relieving traffic congestion.

Consider this passage from The Power Broker. Reminder: It was written in 1974. Caro is writing here about the 1930s. From page 515:

"The Grand Central, Interborough and Laurelton parkways opened early in the summer of 1936, bringing to an even one hundred the number of miles of parkway constructed by Moses on Long Island and in New York City since he had conceived his great parkway plan in 1924. ... One editorial opined that the new parkways would, by relieving the traffic load on the Southern and Northern State parkways, solve the problem of access to Moses' Long Island parks 'for generations.'

"The new parkways solved the problem for about three weeks. ... Some city planners noticed that the traffic pattern on Long Island had fallen into a set pattern: every time a new parkway was built, it quickly became jammed with traffic, but the load on the old parkways was not significantly relieved.

"If this had been the pattern for the first hundred miles of parkways, they wondered, might it not be the pattern for the next forty-five also? Perhaps consideration should be given to trying to ease Long Island's traffic problem by other means..."

Caro describes throughout the book Moses' staunch opposition to mass transit, his blatant racial discrimination, and the illegal, politically infused methods he used – all while Moses was hailed nationally and internationally as "the man who got things done," the honest "non-politician" and so on.

It's one of the most persuasive works I've ever encountered for the importance to our democracy of expert journalists who look deep into local and state governments and pay attention to what is really happening in their city's neighborhoods.

I acquired The Power Broker a few weeks before I heard Caro speak in September 2013 to a roomful of journalists gathered for a Nieman Fellows reunion. He recounted the advice his editor at Newsday gave him, when he asked how to be an investigative reporter. The advice: "Turn every page." Indeed.

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