by Molly Ivins
got lost in the suburbs last week. It was horrible; mile after mile of ticky-tacky on steroids.
I've lived here so long, the only map I own still shows no settlement out there. I couldn't find my way out of those loops and cul-de-sacs, all with Theme Names. I was starting to run low on gas. I wouldn't say panic set in, but it was not the kind of neighborhood where you can rely on the kindness of strangers.
Fortunately, I had just been reading "The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook," specifically, the chapter on "How to Survive When Lost in the Desert" (second in usefulness only to "How to Wrestle Free From an Alligator" -- bop it on the nose; now you know). In the desert-survival chapter, right after Step One ("Don't panic") it says, "If you are on foot, try to backtrack by retracing your steps." Also, "If you have completely lost your bearings, try to get to a high vista and look around."
By following this excellent advice, I was finally able to escape the hundreds of young country clubs disguised as homes. I fled back to Beautiful, Downtown South Austin, where our civic motto is, "A Great Place to Buy Auto Parts."
One of the most profound insights I have ever had about our national life is that you cannot outlaw bad taste in America. The Texas Legislature occasionally tries -- usually in an effort to prevent teen-agers from getting interested in sex. This is as effective as the time they passed a law rounding off the mathematical function pi to an even three. Some people just like old refrigerators on their front porches, fountains of little boys peeing and plastic roses. Get over it.
If folks think they need 6,000-square-foot houses that bulge from lot-line to lot-line, good on 'em. The problem is they're building these monstrosities all over the only aquifer we've got in Central Texas. Water is quite an issue in our state. We are also generously blessed with nutcases in the property-rights movement who believe zoning is "commonism" to be fought until we pry the guns from their dead, cold hands. (Marshall Kuykendall, the head of a Texas property-rights group, was once asked for an example of a case where government had taken property without recompense. He replied, "Well, they freed the slaves.")
Austin is a prime example of why suburban sprawl is becoming a major political issue. The Number One Gripe in Austin is no longer the heat (summer is a clever ploy we use to keep the place from being overrun by Yankees), it's the traffic. We have built these monster suburbs all over hell and the aquifer, and the result is no one can get anywhere any more. They sit there in their SUVs, fuming about the traffic while, of course, the air quality gets worse and worse. According to a new study by the Texas Transportation Institute, Austin ranks seventh out of 68 cities studied for bad traffic. Every citizen spends 45 hours a year in traffic jams. In Dallas, it's 46.
The Ledge, kicking and screaming and under the gun of federal sanctions, finally came up with a tepid little plan to reduce air pollution. But while tentatively dealing with the consequences of sprawl to the atmosphere, the Ledge simultaneously encouraged it with a monumentally dumb move. Breaking the First Rule of Holes (when you're in one, stop digging), they passed yet another tax-abatement program, this one designed to attract more manufacturers.
John Sharp, the former state comptroller, observed recently that if Texas had taken every nickel it has granted in tax abatement over the last 10 years and put it into the schools instead, we'd not only have better schools, all those employers would have moved here anyway. This is a classic case of throwing good money after bad.
A major cause of suburban sprawl is that it's government-subsidized. We subsidize developments in the form of new roads, water and sewer lines, schools, and emergency services. And tax abatements. We give away hundreds of millions dollars in tax revenues to attract low-wage employers, sometimes with a price tag of $100,000 per job. This is Seriously Stupid -- especially when you consider that studies of why companies move from one place to another. The top factors are quality of life and the schools, both of which are harmed by the very tax abatements supposedly drawing the companies.
Sprawl, says the Sierra Club, is threatening our environment, our health and our quality of life. It increases traffic, saps local resources, destroys open space, crowds schools and drives up taxes. It is not, however, inevitable or necessary. You can control sprawl with smart-growth solutions, which channel growth into areas with existing infrastructure.
Such plans are regarded as a threat by our Legislature. The worst thing you can predict in the Ledge is that, "We'll become like Atlanta," where the air and the traffic got so bad they actually got together and came up with a plan to curb sprawl. Sometimes Texas political rhetoric is so wildly at variance with reality it's hard to tell what planet our elected representatives are from.
May 24, 2001 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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