The road to yesteryear
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Now that we have moved to bail out America's great industry of the 20th century, the automobile, the question looming for President-elect Barack Obama and his huge stimulus package is whether we will keep bailing out the economy of the past or lay the foundation for the economy of the future.
Specifically, will we use the stimulus money to prop up the old petroleum-based infrastructure of the 20th-century or to embrace an innovative infrastructure for the 21st century?
The perfect test case is right here in southwestern Pennsylvania: the $5 billion and counting Mon-Fayette Expressway. As the Mon-Fayette goes, so goes the stimulus plan and the nation.
First, a little background. The Mon-Fayette Expressway was initially proposed more than a half century ago when steel-making was king and the population of the Pittsburgh region was reaching its peak. Since 1960, with the collapse of the steel industry, the region's population has steadily declined, but suburban sprawl, paradoxically, has accelerated. Pittsburgh's population has plummeted by almost 50 percent, but freeways have sprouted hither and thither and car traffic into and out of the city has only gotten worse.
The story has been repeated in metropolitan areas across the country, and the solution offered is more of the same. Not only has the Mon-Fayette project survived, but its rationale has shifted with the times. Originally a public investment to support a booming manufacturing economy, it is now supposed to be a panacea meant to stem economic decline and road congestion.
Not surprisingly, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., recently suggested that the long-delayed completion of the Mon-Fayette Expressway be put on a list of priorities for the president-elect's stimulus plan.
So this is our stimulus for the new economy: an "expressway" that will move a shrinking population in more cars for ever longer distances, all in a misguided effort to sustain the past century's binge of housing tracts and shopping malls.
But if there is one thing we have learned from the recent economic collapse, it is that this old model of debt-driven consumption and resource depletion is no longer sustainable. While spreading out our thinning population more than ever, the Mon-Fayette will plow through walkable communities, historic districts and undeveloped wooded riverbanks.
We might be able to accept the destruction if there were a clear payoff for the future. But the Mon-Fayette is a classic expression of the cheap-energy mindset, oblivious to its long-term impacts on local communities and the wider planet.
This region has hotbeds of innovation in its universities and medical complexes, yet our political leadership wants us to return to the ideas of the 1950s and increase our dependency on oil. Instead of building a new energy-efficient infrastructure for the 21st century, they propose to construct a road to yesteryear, a bridge to a failed past.
There are probably dozens of road projects like this on stimulus lists across the nation; the Mon-Fayette just happens to be one of the most dramatically stupid. If it makes the list, we will know which way the stimulus is heading: back to the cheap-energy thinking of the past, rather than forward to a new kind of thinking that would chart a sustainable future.
First Published December 30, 2008 12:00 am