Huckabee’s I-95 idea

Last week, Gov. Huckabee proposed a plan to widen Interstate 95 by two lanes, from Maine to Florida, during the January 24 Republican debate in Florida. One local newspaper covered it as follows:

Huckabee said that rather than a rebate check from the government, a better alternative would be creating jobs through the addition of Interstate-95 highway lanes.

“I’d like to suggest we add two lanes of highway from Bangor to Miami,” Huckabee said. “A third of the United States population lives within a 100 miles of that. If we build those lanes of highway with American labor, American steel, American concrete, I believe it will do more to stimulate the economy.”

under the bridge

I was going to ignore this, but it seems Huckabee raised the idea again last night in California. What in the world is Gov. Huckabee thinking? I try to stay quiet about politics on this blog, but this represents the worst sort of knee-jerk campaign promise there is, short of setting a timeline for withdrawing troops from Iraq. I hardly know where to start, but here are a few reactions:

  1. Clearly I-95 is important to Florida and decades of poor urban planning and zoning have ensured that highways across this country are operating far beyond their design capacities. Plenty of communities do indeed need to improve their roads, as part of a comprehensive mobility plan that accounts for various transportation modes working in concert.
  2. The idea that I-95 would be widened from Maine to Florida cannot be taken literally. There are simply too many places – like New York’s George Washington Bridge over the Hudson, Maryland’s Susquehanna crossing, Baltimore’s tunnels, the Potomac, and even I-95’s small crossing of the Brandywine near my house – where I think the cost would be prohibitive, even for a stimulus plan. The problem is that it is the choke points that need to be widened and not the lonely stretches of highway. If you took this suggestion at face value, you’d build an enormous amount of highway where it was simply not needed.
  3. How would you ever fund this? Most road construction funding in this country comes from Federal matches of state funds, usually 80/20. I suspect that most of not all of the states along I-95 have plans in place for how they feel their transportation networks should be upgraded, and if they are anything like Delaware, they cannot pay for what they have planned already. Would the Feds impose this plan on the states? Would they fund it at 100%? Would the Federal funding come from the gas tax trust fund or from general monies?
  4. If stimulus spending and highway construction were your joint goals, wouldn’t the recent collapse of the highway bridge in Minneapolis suggest to you that replacing worn out infrastructure would be a wiser investment? I am sure all fifty states have a list ready to go of their bridges that are most at risk. Determine which fifty risky bridges carry the most traffic and fix those and you already have a plan that makes more sense to me than the headline-only sound-bite of two more lanes for I-95.
  5. If stimulus spending and increased mobility were your joint goals, wouldn’t the smart thing be to propose plans that take advantage of all of your assets – not just your roads – to offer your citizens and their commerce they best method of moving about? Capacity limits on airports to decrease delays, coupled with lotteries for those reduced slots, could raise money for the nation’s air traffic control system. Work with the freight railroads to improve their capacity and work to get truck traffic off of the roads to make room for people. Invest in rails near cities to permit productive sharing of private infrastructure so that mass transit could offer a competitive alternative to highway gridlock. Finally, where it was needed, you would clearly also build roads, but in a targeted manner and not via some shotgun, trans-continental mandate.
  6. In an era where the population seems to be awakening to the costs our reliance on gasoline takes on us – both environmentally and in terms of international relations – does the idea of vast new highway construction not seem out of step with that? If you are concerned about highway capacity, how about peak use taxes, carpooling subsidies, and telecommuting incentives for businesses? Laying more concrete sounds like a 1950’s prescription, not one suited for the 21st century.

Lastly, a public policy proposal this cavalier and ill conceived makes me think that Huckabee has no substantive advisors. The I-95 idea sounds to me like the beginning of an idea, the 2am spark that gets fleshed out later before being floated as a policy idea. Clearly, the campaign trail is busy and arduous and candidates cut corners. Still, if this middle school debate level of idea is all he can muster, then I think he is clearly not suited to serve on a national executive level.

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