When Congress was assembling what would become the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, lawmakers and their aides would sit down with transportation planners and, with nothing more sophisticated than a coarse map and an ink pen, decide the fate of entire neighborhoods.

If you’ve ever seen a Google Map without the satellite view turned on—just a bare collection of roads and streets—then you’ve experienced a map with more sophistication than what these policymakers worked with. With limited planning and even less insight as to what was happening on the ground, on these simple maps they drew lines that engineers and transportation planners would spend billions to reshape.

Their hand-drawn maps were included in the final legislation. If you’ve heard that highways were originally planned to go around cities, they were. The lines on paper, drawn by people unqualified to make such a decision, changed that. Be careful what lines you put on paper.

My kids are back in school, and so I find myself driving again more than I would like to. They get their education—like good little cattle—in the efficient mega-campus outside of town. On evenings when they have activities, I must pick them up from school and transport them to piano lessons or the dance studio. The bus could take them. but it has been deemed a security risk (read: too much hassle) for students to be allowed more than one destination on their ride home.

The end result is that three days a week over the past month I’ve been driving by a project that is literally the result of a line on a piece of paper. It’s bizarre, baffling, and completely fascinating all at the same time.

When I was a kid and the highway ran through town, there was a hotel and third-rate amusement park on the outskirts. There was a traffic signal there, but it wasn’t in a good location for either the amusement park or the hotel. At some point—so long ago that I don’t remember—the owner of the hotel/park was able to convince the state Department of Transportation (DOT) to put in a “temporary” signal about a quarter mile east of the permanent signal, a much better access point for him. At least, that is the story I was given when I was an intern in the DOT traffic department during college in 1993.

That temporary signal system consisted of some lights hanging from cables strung between a few creosote posts. Very hastily constructed. I estimate it remained there in that state for at least three decades, likely close to four. It just recently came down.

That is because a new signal is being built an additional quarter mile to the east (a half mile between signals is deemed acceptable for a stroad like this). That’s where the lines on paper come in.

At some point in the past, before I was ever aware of such things, someone came up with the idea that there should be a major north/south roadway that runs parallel to the highway. I’m not sure who, and it’s not quite clear why. The parallel road doesn’t connect anything, and there is no congestion except for a few peak days of the year (and the new road would do nothing to alleviate that anyway, because new roads never do).

Cypress Drive in Baxter, Minnesota

Cypress Drive in Baxter, Minnesota

Theoretically, there is some land that could be developed, which is probably the reason that this project has persisted despite its lack of necessity. The city doesn’t cite this reason in its request for funds, but it has put forth some bizarre notion of increasing safety as a reason the project is necessary. Because more people driving—as the city grows outward, traffic increases far faster than population—somehow makes us safer? Not.

Part of the north section was built back before the housing meltdown. At the time, we were told there was going to be $50 million in private development there. Not to be deterred by those plans not coming to fruition (absolutely nothing has been built there), the second phase of the road is now being built at an estimated cost of $14 million. It has involved taking five homes, putting in a new railroad crossing, and getting $6 million in a grant from the state (thank you, fellow Minnesotans, for your generosity).

The new road will now run from the back of some garages for the Berrywood apartments to dead end at a forest adjacent to a park. When we someday do phase three, it will route traffic through an undevelopable swamp to connect to the deadliest stroad in the region. Good times.

Let’s pretend that this $14 million connection is the catalyst that gets that $50 million private investment to happen. That’s a huge fantasy, but let’s play along. And let’s assume—as long as we’re in fantasy world—that the development that happens there isn’t some tax-exempt hospital, or something with a decades-long tax subsidy, but a real business that pays real commercial taxes.

By the latest property tax info I have, the property would be assessed at 38% of tax capacity. So that wildly optimistic scenario (in which the city’s road investment leads to $50 million in development) would have the city bank $380,000 annually from the new development.

$50,000,000 x 0.02 x 0.38 = $380,000 per year

In a scenario that assumes no interest expense, no maintenance costs, no related police or fire expenses, no snow plowing or ditch mowing, etc… and assumes the most optimistic build-out scenario possible, and ignores the sunk costs of the prior investment that has already sat fallow for a decade, and ignores any other development expenses the city will incur… in a scenario that assumes all of that, it will still take 37 years before the city makes $14 million in property tax from the project.

And if your response is, “Whatever; most of the project is being paid by others, so who cares?”, remember: this is now the city of Baxter’s road forever and ever. Who do you think is responsible for maintaining this thing?

Why are we doing this project? That’s right: because we put the lines on paper decades ago.

And, yes, it will produce some sales tax too, but in Minnesota in general, and in Baxter specifically, that money is dedicated to something else. It’s already claimed.

“But Chuck, traffic = growth = prosperity = all things getting better.” That only makes sense if you’re an engineer who sees the city as merely a series of infrastructure projects, who sees lines on paper as destiny. For the rest of us, it’s just spending more money for the same people to drive around more.

We need to see things with fresh eyes again, without the constraints in our thinking that these lines on paper create. If your city is planned based on lines on paper, do yourselves a favor and shred them.