by Jeff Strabone
Why is it that people who argue against the government's role in the economy don't likewise advocate for the flip side: that corporations should not be allowed to influence government? Is there an industrialized democracy more in need of checking corporate power over government policy than the United States? I expect that in any society, in any era, the powerful will have more sway over the making of laws than the powerless. Here in the U.S., corporate influence does not just distort our laws: it distorts our land. The power of the petroleum and automobile industries is inscribed in our very topography, and recent decisions by Republican governors to scuttle federally-funded rail projects suggest that their power to warp the landscape remains as strong as their power to warp democracy. The two go hand in hand.
Corporate power leaves its mark on the world in many ways. Coalmines and mercury-poisoned rivers are the most obvious examples. But what about strip malls and highways and the everyday landscape that many people take for granted as they drive a few miles to the nearest supermarket? Aren't they as American as the amber waves of grain that are the stuff of national song? Let us ask ourselves, how did they get here and what do they tell us about our national inability to build the high-speed rail lines that are the pride of so many other countries?
As I went walking that ribbon of highway,
I saw above me that endless skyway,
I saw below me that golden valley,
This land was made for you and me.
Already, in 1940, the highway had made its mark on the land and on popular song. Although walking a highway may have been an attractive prospect in 1940, it is hard to imagine now. Today we have entire cities, let alone highways, where it is impossible to get anywhere by walking. And the ribbon of highway has become a chain around our necks.
Our imaginations are likewise in chains: many Americans simply cannot imagine that their cities could be designed any differently than they are today. I experienced this last year when I spent the 2009–2010 academic year in Tampa, Florida, a city with no possibility of movement without the automobile.
I do not operate motor vehicles, nor have I ever had a license to do so. By abstaining from owning and driving motor vehicles, I can refrain from contributing to all of the following woes: choking the planet with fuel emissions; propping up tyrannical petro-regimes rife with religious fanaticism; spending a significant portion of my life in a self-enclosed pod; and so on.
Some of the people I met in Tampa thought I was nuts for not driving. A student journalist even interviewed me for an article on the paucity of bike lanes on campus. Apparently, he could not find any other faculty who bicycled to work every day. What struck me most were the responses I got when I encouraged people to organize locally for public transportation. They agreed that a public transit system would be a good thing, but no one could imagine how it could ever come to pass in a city as spread out as Tampa. It was as if their daily enclosures in their four-wheeled pods had similarly foreclosed their ability to imagine taking back the land of their city.
How did our car-trammelled cities get the way they are, and how do they stay that way? There is nothing natural about a city or a town that makes walking impossible. It gets that way by design, by the choices that government—and the interests that dominate government—make. And more bad choices are being made every day.
Law shapes reality, as I like to say. We know what a bank is or what a mortgage is because the law defines these things. Law can also shape the land. And when governments give way to powerful corporate interests, the land will be shaped in accordance with the demands of those interests.
Take the strip mall, for instance, the most dominant feature of Tampa's landscape and one that forces many Americans to drive if they want to buy anything. Mile after mile of strip malls is what one sees everywhere in Tampa. Strip malls don't just pop up on their own: government ushers them into existence. Just as New York City manages to keep out Wal-Mart, so every town dominated by strip malls has written for itself the laws and regulations and zoning ordinances that facilitate the construction of strip malls.
The federal government may have played the biggest role in promoting the spread of the strip mall. Many Americans remember President Eisenhower's creation of the interstate highway system, brought into existence by the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. Less well-known is the provision in the Internal Revenue Code of 1954 regarding 'accelerated depreciation'.
Dolores Hayden, professor of architecture at Yale, has argued in Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820–2000 (2003), that the accelerated depreciation provision in the tax code incentivized the construction of strip malls. The law created a new accounting method for calculating depreciation which made shopping centers attractive tax shelters. Strip mall owners could defer much of their corporate income tax until later years. The result: many strip malls were sold every seven years to avoid having to make the deferred payments at all. Only new buildings were eligible for accelerated depreciation. Ye olde mom-and-pop shops were out of luck as the strip mall sprawled from sea to shining sea.
Government policies that steer us toward a petrol- and automobile-dependent existence are not just relics of the 1950s. Powerful forces are again at work trying to keep the country topographically enthralled to the automobile. Recently-elected Republican governors have stopped rail projects dead in their tracks, so to speak.
The New York Times reported on October 7, 2010 that Chris Christie, Republican governor of New Jersey, had refused $3 billion in federal aid for an already-underway new commuter train tunnel under the Hudson River to Manhattan. This was reportedly 'more money than had been committed to any other transit project in America'. Christie's explanation was simply that, as governor, he did not want to honor New Jersey's share of the cost if the project ran over budget. According to the Times:
In scrapping the project, Mr. Christie is forfeiting the $3 billion from the federal government and jeopardizing as much from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The state may also have to repay the federal government for its share of the $600 million that has already been spent on the tunnel.
The tunnel, which would have stretched under the Hudson from North Bergen, N.J., to a new station deep below 34th Street in Manhattan, was intended to double the number of trains that could enter the city from the west each day. The project's planners said the additional trains would alleviate congestion on local roads, reduce pollution, help the growth of the region's economy and raise property values for suburban homeowners.
The tunnel was also supposed to provide jobs for 6,000 construction workers just as some other big transit infrastructure projects in the city, like the Second Avenue subway, were winding down.
Instead, the contractors hired to dig the tunnel will soon start laying off workers.
Elsewhere, Republican Governor-elect Scott Walker of Wisconsin released this statement, two days after his election last month, on his decision to block a planned high-speed rail line between Madison and Milwaukee:
Since learning about the state's agreement with the federal government we have been exploring all legal options to stop the train from moving forward, and we believe this is a step in the right direction. We are continuing to work with members of congress on redirecting this money to fixing our crumbing roads and bridges.
Walker's decision will cost the state $810 million in federal funds and all the construction jobs that went with it. And no, the Obama administration will not allow the rail funds to be used for anything but rail, something the governor-elect surely knows. By turning down the federal funds, Wisconsin taxpayers will still be contributing to the federal revenues that fund high-speed rail projects elsewhere; they just won't reap any of the benefits. New Republican governors-elect in Florida and Ohio have made similar noises.
When do state governments turn down billions in federal funds for construction projects? When those projects would build alternatives to automobile travel.
Elsewhere around the world, trains are symbols of national pride and international cooperation: the Channel Tunnel between the United Kingdom and France; the Øresund Bridge between Denmark and Sweden. Wikipedia credits Japan's Shinkansen as the first high-speed rail system. Construction began in 1959, just three years after Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 in the U.S. Shinkansen service began in 1964, in time for the Tokyo Olympics. One could cite many facts and figures about impressive high-speed rail achievements around the world: China's 4421 kilometers of high-speed rail currently in operation; the Shanghai Maglev Train's 268 mph speed; Spain's 1761 kilometers of high-speed rail under construction. What's most depressing about Wikipedia's table comparing the thirteen countries with high-speed rail is that the U.S. does not appear anywhere on it.
I don't want to take people's cars away. I just want the government to let us take our land back. One way to do that is to build the infrastructure to provide alternatives to the car and to write tax laws and zoning ordinances that favor types of development other than the strip mall. I want to live in a land where people can walk to the store, greet their neighbors, enjoy common space, have chance encounters on the street—a land whose topography is not a visual reminder that the laws are written for the powerful and that the rest of us had better agree to warp our lifestyles and our imaginations so that the hegemony of petroleum can endure.
I want to live in a land where Woody Guthrie's third verse can still be true:
I roamed and I rambled and I followed my footsteps,
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts,
While all around me a voice was sounding,
This land was made for you and me.
The corporate-distorted lay of the land in the United States in the twenty-first century is not an accident and it is not the result of the invisible hand of the free market. It is the result of definite decisions made by the dirty hands of corporate interests and governments held accountable by too few. It can be undone by new decisions to build public transportation and to encourage forms of retail commerce other than the strip mall and the big-box store. Everything you see when you drive to work is the result of decisions by government and the continuing enforcement of those decisions.
This land may have been made for you and me but, like our government, it has been distorted beyond recognition. The fight for high-speed rail and transportation infrastructure generally is in part about jobs and ecology, but it is also about something more: it is the best chance we have had since the 1950s to inscribe a new set of values in the land. We can only hope that the new rail projects that will be built in the sensible states will spur the rest of the country to want to take their land and their government back from the car and the oil can.