Suburban Issues and Eye on the Pie and Opinion

MARCUS: Is suburbia the root of all evil?

July 24, 2010

Roberta Righteous, the conscience of the Indiana House of Rep-resentatives, was on the phone.

“Phony,” said Myrtle my muse. “You’re not on the phone and Roberta Righteous doesn’t exist.”

“That’s none of your business,” I shouted, annoyed by her interference with my creative process.

“Whatever you write or think is my business,” Myrtle purred, trying to get on my good side. “You have no creative process, you have only me.”

“I need to get this column written,” I pleaded. “I’ve been sick and don’t have the energy to fight with you this week.”

“Well, honey,” she said, “just use one of your old columns. No one would know the difference. You have only two or three themes, anyway.”

“What kind of muse insults the object of her attentions?” I asked.

“The kind who really cares,” she teased.

“I was going to write about how much sense it makes for governments to charge user fees instead of raising taxes,” I said.

“Perfect,” Myrtle sighed. “It will be your third column on that subject in the last year.”

“It’s a recurring issue,” I said. “However, our Indiana attorney general has declared that school districts cannot charge for bus transportation. He thinks it’s unconstitutional because somehow, in his imagination, student transportation is necessary for education.”

“To which you say?” she asked.

“Once upon a time,” I replied, “school transportation eased the journey of farm kids going to school. Today, it’s a massive subsidy for suburban kids whose parents have chosen to live far from a school in a place without sidewalks. It makes all taxpayers ante up for the location preferences of parents who don’t mind bellying up to the public trough.”

“Are you serious?” Myrtle said.

“Absolutely,” I insisted. “Parents move to remote locations, constructed on the cheap without sidewalks, because they know that in this state we’ll subsidize anything that increases the value of farmland. If the schools will pick up the kids for free, then the parents are more interested in living outside the town limits and the farmer gets more money for selling his land to a developer.

“It’s all part of a vast suburban conspiracy,” I said.

“Conspiracy?” Myrtle asked. “Is there a grassy knoll in this?”

“Look,” I said, “who causes the congestion on urban roads?”

“The Department of Transportation,” Myrtle suggested.

“No, that’s not fair,” I said. “INDOT is just trying to correct problems created by suburbanites. Why do I-69 and I-65 coming into Indianapolis become so congested? What clogs I-65 going into Louisville or U.S. 41 headed to downtown Evansville? Why was the Borman in Lake County such a mess before it was widened? Suburban commuters cause congestion. Not trucks, not tourists, not soccer moms.

“What’s the solution? Congestion fees,” I said, answering my own question. “Let those who use the roads at peak hours pay for the privilege. It’s technologically simple and ultimately fair.”

“Then you agree with the Central Indiana Transit Task Force that there should be toll lanes on such roads,” Myrtle asked.

“No,” I said. “There should be tolls on all lanes during peak hours. The toll lane is an easy, but temporary, solution. In fact, I would encourage Indiana to convert all limited access highways to toll roads. If you want premium service, you should pay for it.”

“Isn’t that harsh?” Myrtle asked.

“Listen,” I said. “Why should our hospitals offer private rooms? If a person needs a private room for health reasons, OK. But private hospitals decided to make premium service standard. They make more money that way. We all pay for premium service through higher insurance premiums or taxes when it is needed in only a few instances.

“Our politicians should imitate the private health sector if they want to raise more revenue. They won’t do it because they’re too timid to follow the implications of their own rhetoric.”

“OK,” Myrtle said, then gathered herself together. “Looks like you got your column, and without Roberta Righteous. Now go get some rest.”•

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Marcus taught economics for more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU’s Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at mmarcus@ibj.com.

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