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Highway Heist: The Development of America’s Road System

Reprinted from the Independent Institute

James Bennett’s new book, Highway Heist, offers readers an excellent history of the politics and economics behind the development of the nation’s transportation network. When one reflects on the many activities undertaken by the government, the nation’s network of roads looks like one of the more productive government activities. Yet Bennett shows that the construction of roads has often been controversial and that interest group politics has played a significant role in determining whether they would be built and where they would go.

Readers interested in infrastructure issues will find the book very informative. Bennett offers readers a rich historical background, even going back to the nation’s founding. The book is loaded with facts and case studies. While a book on infrastructure could be dry reading, Bennett is a good writer who will engage readers. The text reads like a good story.

The debate on the appropriate role of government in the development of roads began early in the nation’s history. Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams advocated expanding government’s role in infrastructure development, while Andrew Jackson was opposed and even questioned whether the federal government’s involvement in road building was constitutional.

Beginning in the 1880s, bicycle enthusiasts joined those who promoted horse-drawn transportation in advocating for better roads. The growth in automobile travel fed that demand even more, and the US highway system promoted by FDR was a prelude to Eisenhower’s interstate highway system that was initiated in the 1950s.

The interstate highway system, a remarkable public works achievement, was costly in many ways. Beyond the money spent, new highways destroyed neighborhoods. They displaced more than a million Americans, often forcibly by using eminent domain to obtain right-of-way. Cronyism and corruption usually determined where highways would be built and who would get the contracts to build them.

The nation’s highway network brought suburbanization and traffic congestion. It sparked a backlash against a system that critics argued was poorly planned and filled with boondoggles, waste, and incompetence. You can see the roads. Bennett shows you the politics behind them, and the picture often is not pretty.

The history, the anecdotes, and the many facts make this book worthwhile, and the engaging writing style makes the book a fun read. If you have any interest in the topic, this book is worth your time.

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