Gov. Mike Easley, smart-growth advocates and other lovers of big government haven’t gotten the word yet, but their crusade lies prostrate in the shadow of Sept. 11. Al Qaeda’s handiwork that day — and realistic fears of continuing attacks — have exploded environmentalists’ dreams of throttling suburban growth and expanding mass transit.
Anyone who pushes smart growth in today’s chaotic world might as well send a written invitation to terrorists, whose primary strategy is to destroy high-density targets and maximize body counts. Incessant terrorist attacks on public transit in Israel; a nightclub in Bali, Indonesia; airports; and numerous other places where people congregate all serve to underscore a proven battle plan: Fanatical Islamic groups will continue to prey on crowds.
For that reason, the Department of Homeland Security, in its most recent code-orange alert, warned people who live in apartment complexes and those staying in hotels to be extra vigilant. The media reported that a key Democratic congresswoman cautioned her daughter to avoid New York City’s subways.
President Bush has warned us that there is no foreseeable end to terrorism and that our world was forever changed Sept. 11. It’s a sobering fact of life today, he said, that terrorists have infiltrated our society and that Americans, especially those who live in big cities, will have to change their lifestyles.
Writing about the realities of our changed world, Senior Economist Randal O’Toole of the Thoreau Institute cited historian Stephen Ambrose’s view that the real lesson behind terrorist attacks is, “Don’t bunch up.” Ambrose wrote: “It is no longer necessary to pack so many people and offices into such small places as lower Manhattan. They can be scattered in neighboring regions and states, where they can work just as efficiently and in far more security.”
And though New York City and other American metropolises will pursue plans for skyscrapers out of civic pride, smart-growth advocates such as James Howard Kunstier concede that the age of the skyscrapers is coming to an end, said O’Toole. Other smart-growth advocates say their vision of the future is low- to mid-rise, mixed-use housing.
But even that may be too dense for many people’s comfort, wrote O’Toole. He quoted San Jose Mercury columnist Dan Gilimor, who wrote: “The logic of decentralization has never been more clear. Safety once resided in large numbers. In tomorrow’s world, there will be more safety in spreading out.”
Yet Easley and his allies continue to ignore the realities of this grave new world, unnecessarily exposing a trusting public to potential danger.
Recently, the governor announced a plan to divert $700 million from the Highway Trust Fund toward highway maintenance, bridge replacement — and public transit, such as the rail systems planned for Charlotte and the Triangle. Current law, however, stipulates that most money from the trust fund must be allocated to new-highway construction. No problem there, though: Easley is relying on a bill introduced by Rep. Jim Crawford (D-Oxford) and Sen. Wib Gulley (D-Durham) to change the law, allowing the Department of Transportation to transfer the money from the trust fund.
Easley’s unwise action comes at a time when North Carolinians want more, not fewer, highways. Because of fear of terrorism and increased security/delays associated with it, short-haul flights are drawing fewer passengers; instead, more people are choosing to drive to nearby destinations. A recent AAA survey found that 22 percent fewer people are flying on routes of 200 to 400 miles. Other data from tourism agencies show that many travelers now prefer to visit in-state destinations — in the safety of their own vehicles — rather than flying to more remote destinations.
New attacks by terrorists will intensify Americans’ fears of mass transit and high-density housing and increase pressure on politicians to abandon smart-growth initiatives. North Carolina’s lawmakers would be wise to heed the trend now and funnel more money — not less — into expanding the state’s highway system and other projects that accommodate suburban growth.
Already, through the marketplace, Americans are conveying a strong message to their elected representatives: “Don’t herd us into boxes for an easy slaughter!”
Terrorists, meanwhile, undoubtedly have their own message for politicians who insist on espousing the smart-growth cause: “Go ahead, make our day.”
[Richard Wagner is the editor of the Carolina Journal, the newspaper of the John Locke Foundation a non-partisan think-tank based in Raleigh.]