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News Blog

Jonesing for a freeway

by Jesse Fruhwirth
- Posted // 2009-09-10 -

News of Utah's record-breaking bond sale has me thinking that Utah is an anti-debt, fiscally conservative state ... except when it comes to roads.

From Bloomberg:

Utah’s general obligation debt burden will increase to 2.85 percent of personal income from 1.8 percent on June 30, bond documents show, higher than the 2.5 percent national median last reported by Moody’s in late July.

The bond money will finance highway construction. You often hear road construction promoted as a way to ease traffic congestion, but that's malarky. Roads are like branches on a tree and suburban sprawl is like leaves. The branches come first, and the leaves grow on the branches until it's full.

Consider it: New road capacity temporarily eases congestion and also makes more attractive to new home buyers far-flung lots and developments at the end of those roads, because at the moment of sale the traffic congestion is minimal. But in short order, sometimes before the road is even finished, that new construction in those far-flung places congests the newly built road. You can again increase the capacity of the road, or build a redundant road, but the cycle repeats. The new construction in far-flung places (sprawl) only stops once the land is no longer attractive due to traffic congestion that has once again become a problem.

Ok, ok. I've glossed over the value of new home construction. Housing starts are a leading indicator of economic health and a big part of the economy; Ok, I know that. And traffic congestion is bad for business. I'll concede that, too. One could argue, therefore, that road construction is important to bolster the state's economy. Perhaps it's a very good reason for the state to go into debt, especially during a recession. 

But that to me is like an alcoholic saying he can't quit drinking because when he does he gets the shakes. That excuse only lasts so long before more radical changes in behavior are necessary. 

Our petroleum-based transportation system is in jeopardy because global oil supplies are dwindling and production capacity is almost stagnant. We may find an alternative fuel system that allows us to maintain our devotion/addiction to personal vehicles and the roads they drive on. But we may not. 

So why is Utah entering into an era of historic debt to pay for that??

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