As of this moment, I am in Nantucket, MA.  It is a place far removed from urban life.  It is full of classic New England beaches and grasses.  Nantucket’s landscape is sparse, intentionally kept sparsely populated.  I believe America needs places like this, but at the same time the majority of Americans should live in or near cities.  The national parks – as Ken Burns is currently showing us – are a tremendous treasure and it is important that we allow people to get there to visit them.  However, the utility of building roads to create new communities or prop up non-densely populated ones is limited, if not of negative value.

Yet, programs like the Applachian Development Highway System still exist.  Next American City provided a great overview of the ADHS, which is run by the Appalachian Regional Commission.  The program was set up with noble intentions in 1964 to bring economic growth to Appalachia.  As of 2008, 2,672 of the allocated 3000 miles were built, and the remaining were amongst the most expensive to build.  Next American City linked to a great video to PBS (click the previous NAC link).

These remaining 14% of miles should not be built.  I feel badly for the people of Appalachia, but their economy is not about to be saved.  The industrial and mining jobs are not coming back, especially in the mining regions where the relevant ores and coal have been exhausted.  These people should not be given false hope via expensive highway projects that no one will ride.

Those infrastructure dollars are precious, and using them to cut down trees and plow through mountains in the name of “economic development” is plain stupid.  Transportation infrastructure is a key element in economic development, but in an age where the vast majority of Americans live in cities, those dollars should be focused on those places, not in the places where few people live.  We must focus on making our cities sustainable, not creating boondoggles of asphalt through places where dirt trails should be the primary means of travel.

That doesn’t mean Appalchia has no urban areas.  Some Appalachian advocates want the money funneled into the cities.

Birmingham real estate developer Cathy Crenshaw imagines how a project like the ADHS could be reevaluated to actually meet the public demand. “It would be pretty wonderful if we could shift some of these dollars for larger projects back into cities. The question is, how do we build neighborhoods that we want to live in and want to walk around in and know people? That requires investment. So, I would much rather, personally, see investment in public transportation, which is much less expensive than a new highway system.”

Let’s give the people of Appalachia incentive to build better cities, not more poverty along poorly-traveled roads.