For some tens of thousands of car-owners in our little corner of the country, today was very exciting. The last leg on a decade-long public works project expanding and reconstructing a high volume, limited-access road (aka, a highway) through the St. Louis metropolitan region was opened today (which, for the record, is actually slightly ahead of schedule and under budget).

A week ago, I spoke in general about big projects. Tonight, I’m focusing on a set of particular projects on one road. For me personally, the work on I-64 has conveniently coincided with my time in St. Louis; on a given trip home, one thing to note on the drive was which interchange was new since the last trip, and more recently, which section of the highway had to be avoided since it was closed.

The New I-64 project serves as a good framework for several issues affecting our transit options.

I am a big proponent of viewing highways as one component of a comprehensive transportation system. The framing where we present mass transit as basically contrasting with roads and airports, I think, limits our ability to design the best systems and limits the potential popularity of coalitions to support a major overhaul in terms of the resources we put forth maintaining our transportation network and in adding significant new capital outlays. The point of mass transit is to describe those parts of the system that move lots of people and goods. What we want out of a transportation system is what we want out of any system: choice, redundancy, ease of access, and so forth. And the more specialized our modern highways become, the more they start looking like rail systems, with their more particular spacing needs (width for highways is like grade for rails), stations (which are basically what entrance and exit ramps are), standardization (naming and numbering, compatible vehicles, etc) and so forth.

Another area that I would suggest is important is that it shows how decisions have consequences far into the future. One map I really like is what the US highway system looked like before the Interstate system. Many of those basic routes were effectively ‘upgraded’ to Interstates, while other routes were largely left to stagnate as they were; this affected all kinds of growth along the preferred routes and the abandoned ones. People who grew up in St. Louis call I-64 Highway 40 for a simple reason: that’s what it used to be. But make no mistake, no one wants to abandon the extra lanes or bring back the stoplights, never mind the symbolic nostalgia of purposefully not employing the Interstate naming system. Similarly, decisions made decades ago about abandoning rail infrastructure are haunting us today. We have to make different choices if we want the future to turn out differently.

There are whole neighborhoods that have been wiped out by I-64. Some neighborhoods used to go right up to Highway 40. In the less developed exurban areas, it’s possible to chop down some trees, flatten some hills, and add some pavement. But in the more developed suburban areas, big government is a requirement because you need the power of eminent domain. You can’t shrink an 8 lane road to 2 lanes for half a mile to get around a neighborhood; that’s extremely inefficient to the point of rendering the project futile. Rather, you go in, move houses, block local roads, and otherwise disrupt any sense of community and conserving what used to be. We should be hesitant to use such power. But when it’s beneficial, it’s really beneficial.

There is a distributional component to the New I-64. The one stretch of the highway that isn’t being touched is that along the urban stretch just west of the Mississippi River. It’s kind of funny, almost. Our urban roads and bridges are aging, and that’s where those Tax and Spend Big Government Libruls live. Yet, they’re the areas most in need of massive investment. Suburbanites aren’t conflicted by feeling some abstract need to tip-toe around requests for government money or worry about being accused of government influence or justify making their highway revenue neutral.

Reconstruction projects are a good reminder that things are valuable but that life doesn’t end when access is temporarily restricted. Both of those observations are important. Mobility is a key part of our wealth, and Americans recognize this. People are passionate about this stuff. There are thousands of conversations going on around the central corridor of St Louis to the effect of, ‘hey, did you take Forty today?’ ‘Yeah, what about you?’ ‘I got on at Hanley and drove to Kingshighway’. But people survived two years with parts of the highway being completely shut down. That’s important to remember for people too concerned about things like peak oil and dependence on foreign oil. Our freeways are important, but life doesn’t end if they’re shut down for awhile. In fact, one of the easiest substitutions we just don’t think about sometimes is that highways can easily be turned into rail systems. After all, the most expensive part of building above ground in metropolitan areas isn’t the construction itself. It’s the cost of acquiring the right of way. It is better if we proactively plan for a massive expansion of our urban rail networks. However, mass transit is mass transit. If we have some cataclysmic event with oil, we have the basic technology and manpower to essentially ‘convert’ some of our oil-based highway system to electric-based rails. For high-volume destination events, like sports, concerts, work, and so forth, there is plenty of demand for transportation from point a to point b; people in aggregate really aren’t that particular about how they get from point a to point b.

One last really convenient bit about the I-64 story is that it runs through a big heart of conservative suburbia and exurban sprawl in Missouri. In 2006, Democrat Claire McCaskill defeated Republican Senator Jim Talent. Talent is from Chesterfield, the quintessential affluent suburb along 64/40 about halfway between where 64/40 merges into I-70 to the west and the downtown core to the east. Closer in is upscale Frontenac, where Mitt Romney highlighted a dinner back in 2007 exploring his Presidential aspirations. Grover Norquist didn’t come leading any protests. Teabaggers aren’t standing around shouting ‘get government out of our roads’. Birthers aren’t disputing the authenticity of the value of investing in transportation. In fact, the biggest complaint was that the reconstruction was a big enough project that some sections of the highway had to be completely closed for periods of time.

In short, St. Louisans are excited about a massive public works project designed to improve mobility in the St. Louis region. The politics are right. The need is there for massive investments in infrastructure, both maintenance and new construction.

So I have a simple question. Why aren’t we building ten thousand ‘New I-64s’? Some would be road and bridge maintenance, some urban rail, some rural highways, some high speed rail, some waterway improvements, and that’s just the transportation projects. Then, there are whole other areas of investment, like water, schools, parks, and libraries. I can’t promise that every project would be as popular as the New I-64. But if you want a tour of one particular Big Government project that people of all partisan stripes love, I’d be happy to show you around.

You can even bring some pamphlets about reproductive healthcare and GLBTQ issues and we can drop them off at the Cathedral Basilica in the east, then we’ll head west to the Morman temple, and finally end up in Wentzville where I’ll let you pick a Baptist church in the area. It’ll be fun.

Crossposted at Daily Kos.

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