The Agenda

Jack Shafer on the Virtues of Unpaved Roads

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post pushing back against the recent wave of infrastructure pessimism. Jack Shafer of Slate has done a far better job of clarifying the issues at stake:

 

A strong case can be made that North Dakota and maybe a few other states are now paying the price—or not paying the price, as it were—for having overbuilt their road systems. The most recent federal numbers show that North Dakota has 86,842 miles of road, compared with next-door-neighbor Montana’s 73,202 miles. Montana is similarlyrural, but it’s twice the size of North Dakota and has a 50 percent greater population. If Montana can function with 13,000 fewer miles of road than North Dakota, then North Dakota can unpave or abandon several thousands of miles of road without disintegrating. Montanans even drive more rural miles (PDF) than North Dakotans. South Dakota, which has about 25 percent more people than North Dakota, gets by with just 83,744 miles of road!

Another argument for deleting some of North Dakota’s paved roads: Its population has been flat since 1920, and its rural areas are steadily depopulating. This means that its rural roads are used less and less every year. How many of its seldom-used paved roadways should have never been paved in the first place? I have anecdotal evidence of the state’s roadway profligacy: When I drove its vast network of paved back roads during my summer vacation, it was an event to see another car more often than once an hour. When driving gravel roads, I never saw another car.

A number of readers suggested that Shafer was missing the point of the polemics by Paul Krugman, Rachel Maddow, and others, and in a sense they are clearly right: the point, as I understand it, is to use misleading news stories and anti-Chinese xenophobia to frighten the U.S. public into imposing higher taxes. Shafer, in contrasted, was trying to determine whether or not the decision to reduce maintenance of roads in certain sparsely-populated areas is a reasonable idea. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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