Does America need megahighways?

Taxpayers today inspect the shelves of public goods and services with great care. They select only the offerings that fulfill a need and return good value for the money. Until someone offers these taxpayers an alternative to unneeded and extravagant infrastructure, they will not buy. Our deteriorating infrastructure will not be replaced.

Recently, mayors, governors, Congress and the Reagan administration have all pointed to each other as the source of money for rebuilding this infrastructure of streets, highways, bridges, rails, and sewer and water systems.

In all of this rather intellectual debate, one practical point has been overlooked: our nation does not need and cannot afford all of the infrastructure it has built.

It follows that, instead of debating how to raise the money for reconstruction of this vast infrastructure, we should be trimming it to fit our needs. Only after this has been done will the public be interested in paying the replacement cost.

At least one portion of our present urban infrastructure was built without a clear-cut expression of need from the American public. This was our urban streets and highways and their accompanying drainage systems. Our vast complex of urban roadways and drainage came into being in part when federal and state gasoline taxes married with local special assessment levies against property owners.

Money from these two sources has been spent without annual budget debates in Congress, state legislatures, or city halls. Roadways have been expanded while schools were closed. Not only were miles and miles of urban roadways built, they were made wider and wider. Each added foot of roadway surface, whether a foot wider or a foot longer had to be accompanied by a larger drainage system.

Nor is there any debate today on this simple question: Is it practical to replace all of these extravagant facilities?

Today's cars are smaller and the speed limit is 55 miles per hour. While trucks and buses are wide, they, too, travel at slower speeds than when much of the system was built. It seems logical that we no longer need to design megaroadways for vehicles and speeds of days gone by.

It is difficult to determine where or when the public asked for all of this ''infrastructure.'' I realize elected representatives passed legislation establishing state and federal roadway trust funds. And mayors like myself presided over public hearings which theoretically provided the public with a direct voice in decisions. But the major decisions of any street project which involves federal money have been decided before the hearings even begin. Federal standards determined the street's width. Yet, we have not had a major national debate for decades about these standards.

I do not believe my own city of 60,000 people would suffer any significant hardship by reducing the average width of our streets and highways by about two feet.

Eventually, the capacity of our drainage system could be reduced accordingly. People would be pleased to find they had more room for their trees and lawns. More room would be available on driveways so fewer cars would need be parked on streets. This city, and any other, would become cooler, cleaner and greener.

The width of our interstate highways in rural areas could also be reduced. Some of the money needed to rebuild these highways could be raised by selling slices of right-of-way beside the highway to the adjacent farmers. More food could be produced. The tax base of local governments would be increased.

The infrastructure of a private business is usually called ''overhead expense.'' Too much overhead has caused the death of many a business. The road to a similar fate in the public sector is paved. And, it's wider.

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