Illegitimate Eminent Domain takings for highway construction: Reader's Opinion, 6/27/05

By Danny L Newton, Cookeville TN

Illegitimate Eminent Domain takings have been happening for years with highway construction and the public has paid a dear price for it. The way this has happened is by gradual replacement of traditional accounting mechanisms to balance user tax coming in with maintenance and construction costs going out. Decades ago, it only required accountants to monitor the activities of a highway department. Now economists have taken over. Instead of viewing a good project as one that promoted public safety, mobility and was financially sound, the new think is to make sure the ratio of money spent is somewhat in the neighborhood of the increase in the land values that result in the construction. Instead of replenishing the highway trust fund, the construction is expected to replenish local sales and property tax collections.

To many people, this sounds reasonable, but it has a negative impact on safety, mobility or congestion and economic stability of state trust funds. If you are driving to work along a route that already has high value land to the left and the right, it is less likely that your route will be considered as a good candidate for economic development purposes. In fact, the money that you put in the purchase of gas or other fuel is probably going to go somewhere else long before it solves your congestion problem.

In Tennessee, the state highway department is pushing highways that have much lower potential for recovering the initial investment but have high value with respect to the ratio of the cost of the construction to the increase in land values. The public is often told that the highways, though underutilized, are safer, and they are, but if they were built in more urban settings, they would be safer for a much larger fraction of the population. Even though cell phones, speeding and seat belts are a factor in highway safety, the state highway departments are more likely to press against these causes of highway deaths and damage rather than their own failings to produce a product that obtains the greatest good for the greatest number.

Few people will question the taking of private property for a highway because they are familiar with the usual situation where the public at large benefits from the taking. The assumption of universal benefit is no longer applicable when the motive behind the taking is an extra interchange to serve a large retailer.

These "extra" interchanges often come with lowered speed limits and higher accident frequency. For this reason, I say that the taxpayer is paying with life and limb as well as providing an incentive to raise gas taxes to cover the losses. To perpetuate an interstate, it can take as much as 44,000 cars per day. Some of these interchanges and their connecting roads have from 4,000 to 12,000 cars per day. The losses must be absorbed elsewhere in the system.

Corporate welfare programs, better known as Economic Development are the darlings of the left and the right. For one group, it seems to prove that taxes are too high and for the other group it proves that the economy needs fixing. In Tennessee, a state sponsored county by county organization is ready, willing and able to go after anything to make a job. The justifications can not be challenged when they come in the form of reports from economist who use high dollar computer programs and high dollar purchased data to run the program. The output and the degrees that are wielded plus good intentions is adequate anesthesia for most people, so they regard the process as legitimate.

Danny L Newton: dlnewton2@netzero.net