Thursday, August 11, 2005

Paving The Way For 2008

The Mooselings love the smell of asphalt in the morning.

In The Wayward Bus Steinbeck wrote:

The highway to San Juan de la Cruz was a blacktop road. In the twenties hundreds of miles of concrete highway had been laid down in California, and people had sat back and said, “There, that’s permanent. That will last as long as the Roman roads and longer, because no grass can grow up through the concrete to break it.” But it wasn’t so. The rubber-shod trucks, the pounding automobiles, beat the concrete, and after a while the life went out of it and it began to crumble. Then a side broke off and a hole crushed through and a crack developed and a little ice in the winter spread the crack, so the resisting concretecould not stand the beating of rubber and broke down. Then the county maintenance crews poured tar in the cracks to keep the water out, and that didn’t work, and finally they capped the roads with an asphalt and gravel mixture. That did survive, because it offered no stern face to the pounding tires. It gave a little and came back a little. It softened in the summer and hardened in the winter. And gradually all the roads were capped with shining black that looked like silver in the distance.

When President Bush signed his Transportation Bill yesterday, the news story was the big price tag, the endless list of pet projects and funky local giveaways that totaled, in the end, $286 Billion. The Washington Post for example went whole hog on its front page with the headline: Road Bill Reflects The Power of Pork. And indeed, it's quite stunning -- the 6,371 schemes scattered across most every Congressperson's district. The Mooselings hate waste and are skeptical of untamed spending that looks more like a series of earmarked goodie bags than reasoned steps toward good government.

That said, the Mooselings think there's another story here. That is: Roads rock. Roads are romantic. Simple, yes, but true. The Mooselings love roads. And if the Moosleings are right about this one, so do most Americans. They may not give voice to that love, but deep down, in their daily lives and genetic identity, they are inherently and soulfully connected to our nation's highways and byways. And, mundane as they may seem, those roads are one of the most regular and most tangible links that most people have to some sort of shared national experience -- talk about common ground. Any forward-thinking politician trying to position himself strategically for 2008, would be wise to court the asphalt voter.

For many people, new roads, like sprawl in general, are either good or bad. They ruin our way of life, some say, they are environmentally unsound, and cut away at our community. But, others respond, you can't stop progress, and you should stop hating on America. The Mooslings argue that highways, and the vehicles we love to drive on them, aren't that easy to pigeonhole, they're far more ambiguous, alluring, overwhelming, and complicated.

A long time ago, Robert Penn Warren captured that menacing power in the opening pages of All the King's Men, describing a southern Highway 58, in "the country where the age of the internal combustion engine has come into its own," a strange land:

Where the smell of gasoline and burning brake bands and red-eye is sweeter than myrrh. Where the eight-cylinder jobs come roaring around the curves in the red hills and scatter the gravel like spray, and when they ever get down in the flat country, and hit the slab God have mercy on the mariner.

In truth, the bookish Mooselings suggest that yesterday's and today's steadfast push for new roads is quintessentially America and captures the complex challenges of our unrelenting growth. Roads' great promises are literal and figurative connections to a greater nation and growing markets. Their great threats are further alienation from our neighbors, disintegration of our communities, and lots of people bowling alone (which we all agree is just no fun).

Today's Washington Post talks about a new phenomenon, a west coast paradox: densely packed sprawl. In what was once, and is still imagined to be, the vast and great frontier, we find today, "density is the rule, not an exception, in the wide-open spaces of the West." Of course, "this demographic pattern is having profound effects on housing construction, commuting and the quality of urban life." New highways lie at the heart of this trend, represented here by the experiences of Susan DeSantis a 55 year-old, Californian:

The master plan controls life in Newport Coast with a fussy rigor. It bans mortuaries, union halls and sanitariums for the mentally ill. It permits gazebos, tennis courts and therapy baths. An "opaque screen" must shield all parked cars from arterial highways. "All landscaping shall be maintained in a neat, clean and healthy condition," by order of the master plan.

What it lacks in flexibility, Newport Coast makes up for in convenience. A six-lane road feeds cars in and out of the development so efficiently, DeSantis said, that in the past nine years she has never seen it clogged with traffic. The road connects to a nearby toll highway, part of a regional system of toll roads that cushions many Orange County commuters from the traffic congestion that torments much of the region.

By car, DeSantis is five minutes from the ocean, 10 minutes from high-end shopping and 15 minutes from John Wayne Airport. She can also take commuter rail -- a station is about 15 minutes away -- to downtown Los Angeles or San Diego. Distances here are measured by time in a car. DeSantis said she has never once walked to a local grocery store, although the nearest one is 10 minutes away on foot.

No wonder Bush's Transportation Bill-signing yesterday, was a strangely bipartisan event. Perhaps it was the billions of dollars in pork that brought the Democrats and Republicans together. But the Mooselings would like to think that the reason Bush and Hastert stood with Obama, Durbin, and Daley was a newfound recognition that those longtime forces and long-coveted prizes of American politics, soccer moms and NASCAR dads, are not so different from each other or anyone else. Ultimately, we all come from same place: the Highway On-Ramp.

-- The Mooselings
-- Posted at 4:04 PM | Link to this post | Email this post