Strong Towns Rebuttal: Let them eat lobster!

I love lobster. A grilled lobster tail with a little bit of butter is the most divine food I can imagine. If I had the option, I would eat lobster every day. So why can’t I, an American living in a country of unequaled prosperity, eat lobster every day?

Well I can, if I am willing to pay for it.

You see, nobody subsidizes my lobster for me. And since I have to pay the full cost, I probably average a meal of lobster tail once a year. For the most part, if I want meat, I eat chicken, pork or beef in the form of hamburger. And I’m good with that. I could eat lobster every day if I really wanted to, but I’d have to cut way back on other things I am not willing to live without. So I make choices.

Yesterday, Mr. O’Toole made the following comment in his posting:

“The automobile would not have led people to move to low-density suburbs if they didn’t want to live in such suburbs in the first place.

While some people prefer the modern version of an urban lifestyle, many people desire a low-density suburb with their own single-family house. Clearly, preference is a substantial part of this choice.

The real question is not whether this desire is real, but whether it is the product of reality. Are we really paying for our lobster, or have we masked its true cost so that it is not discernable from that of a cheeseburger?

O’Toole indicates that:

“…unlike many local roads, 100 percent of the cost of the interstate system was paid for out of gas taxes and other user fees (tolls plus taxes on autos, trucks, and tires that were created to pay for such roads).

This may have been true for the initial construction of much of the system (the 90% paid by the federal government), but as the system has aged, we have found user fees to be insufficient. In 2007, only 72% of the cost of construction and maintenance was covered by user fees. The rest were paid by general fund receipts, debt and other taxes and assessments.

Today we are barely treading water on a system in rapid decline. In my home state of Minnesota, Mn/DOT released a 20-year plan detailing $65 billion in needs and just $15 billion in funding. An immediate $1 per gallon increase in the state gas tax is needed to cover this gap – an amount unthinkable, not to mention politically impossible. How can this be if we are actually ready to pay the full cost?

If the automobile were magically replaced with teleport technology that was ubiquitous and cost nothing, there were be an overwhelming demand for large tracts of land that had mountain views, a fresh stream, a clear lake and some beautiful trees. But this isn’t solely a matter of how we would like to live. It is a question of each of us balancing priorities and making choices fully vested in the both the cost and benefit sides of the equation.

Federal spending on highways has shielded us from the cost side of the equation. If we were actually – each and every day - paying the long-term cost of building and maintaining our highway systems, people would inevitably choose a lifestyle that was more efficient, less expensive and higher density that our current pattern of development.


This post, composed by Charles Marohn, is jointly posted at the Antiplanner blog.