Speak Your Piece: Times Story Runs Off Road

The New York Times wanted to show that rural America was getting too much highway money. The story didn't quite work.

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The New York Times reported last week that cities were losing out to rural communities when it came to federal highway spending from the recently passed stimulus bill. Michael Cooper and Griff Palmer wrote that “it is clear that the stimulus program will continue that pattern of spending disproportionately on rural areas.” 

The Times’ story could be right, but there is no way of knowing from the evidence the two reporters presented. I’ll go through some of the largely wonky criticism of what the Times reporters have done in a minute. First, though, rural residents need to see this story as part of a larger narrative that has helped shape national policy since the 2008 presidential campaign. It goes like this:

Because the presidential campaign begins in New Hampshire and Iowa, candidates have to pledge their allegiance to rural. As a result, urban America is ignored. Investment in the cities is stymied, even though the country’s economy is powered by urban areas. Rural areas, meanwhile, reap disproportionately large attention from the federal treasury.

“By now, many Americans have heard the presidential candidates talk about issues close to the heart of rural America,” the New York Times editorialized in February 2008. Cities are “where most Americans live or work,” the paper continued, but “urban issues have gotten scant attention in this campaign….It’s not a new problem.” 

The theme of how powerful rural interests have cornered the federal budget to the detriment of the cities has cropped up repeatedly. We don’t need a Secretary of Agriculture, wrote Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. The country should have a “Secretary of Food” because while only two percent of Americans farm, “100 percent of Americans eat.”  Two scholars from the Brookings Institution wrote an article headlined “Village Idiocy.” “The idea that we are a nation of small towns is fundamentally incorrect,” they wrote.

Nice. We live in a country where liberal scholars think it’s okay to equate living in a small town with being an idiot.

We also live in a time when the nation’s largest newspaper can assume federal policy caters to small towns — and then make that assumption come true on the front page. Last week we saw that happen with the story about highway spending.

Now begins the wonky part. Let’s look at how the Times came to the conclusion that rural areas were pirating money that could be better put to use in the cities.

Cooper and Palmer compiled a database of 5,274 highway projects paid for out of the stimulus package. The projects total $16.4 billion out of the $26.6 billion contained in the highway stimulus bill. The reporters counted the dollars spent in the “100 largest metropolitan areas.” Then they compared the percentage of people who live in these regions with the percentage of highway money spent there.

The reporters write that these multi-county metropolitan areas are home to two-thirds of the country’s population and three-quarters of the nation’s economic activity, but have received less than half the money allocated so far from highway stimulus money. 

The reporters then concluded that money spent on highways continues a “pattern of spending disproportionately on rural areas.”

There may be more, but here are four problems with that analysis:

Problem #1 It’s important to keep in mind that metropolitan areas aren’t the same thing as city limits. For instance, Austin, Texas, is a city within Travis County. But the “metropolitan area” of Austin covers five counties. 

Contrary to what the Times story implies, there aren’t just 100 metropolitan areas in the U.S.  There are really 363 metropolitan areas in the country, covering 1,092 counties. Cooper and Palmer counted money sent to the 100 largest metro areas and then assumed that the rest of the money went to “rural” communities.

The Times story only mentions the 100 largest metropolitan areas. But there are 363 metro areas in the country, shown in red above.

In other words, Reno (NV), Durham (NC), Lexington (KY), Lansing (MI), Provo (UT) and Spokane (WA) and 257 other “metropolitan areas” are “rural,” according to the Times. (Welcome to Yonder, fellow idiots!) The only cities in the U.S., according to the Times, are the 100 largest. Everything else is the sticks.

How much really went to cities as opposed to rural communities? The Times doesn’t tell us. The federal Department of Transportation won’t release the database that would allow us to do our own calculations.

Problem #2 The Times constantly mixes up counties and metropolitan areas. The reporters write that “the nation’s largest metropolitan areas have received a disproportionately small share of the money….” For example, they continue, King County, Washington — Seattle — received only $63 million in highway funding.

Well, the Federal Highway Administration’s website reports that King County actually has received $108 million in highway money.  (What’s $45 million among friends?) But the real point is that King County is just one county in the Seattle metropolitan area. The Times doesn’t count Snohomish or Pierce counties, although they are both metropolitan counties — and counties that have received $86 million in highway spending. 

The Times reports that only $34 per person was spent on highways in King County. But it misses the $96 dollars spent for every resident of Pierce County. Our quick calculation is that when you look at the Seattle metro area, the federal stimulus package is spending $62 a person on highways.

The Times constantly mixes up counties, cities and metro areas, using counties when it wants to show how little cities are receiving, but choosing metropolitan areas when it wants to show how many people and how much economic power reside in cities.

Problem #3 The Times doesn’t count all the transportation money being spent from the stimulus bill.

The highway bill has nearly $27 billion in spending. A third of that money is set aside mostly for cities. Of the $8 billion set aside for specific areas, only 7.9% can be spent in communities of under 5,000 people. The Times doesn’t include this urban set-aside in its analysis (as far as anyone can tell) even though the totals are clearly included in the legislation.

Nor does the Times include other transportation spending included in the stimulus bill. The Department of Transportation has already agreed to spend $140 million in King County on mass transit. How much did rural Washington State get in mass transit money from the stimulus? Not much. I count two rural counties that received any mass transit spending. Check out the map

If you add mass transit spending in King County with highway spending, you don’t have $34 per person in transportation spending. The total comes to $139 per person — and all of a sudden King County is doing quite well.

Problem #4 When I lived in Smithville (TX), a town of 3,000 people, the state paid to bypass the town with a four-lane highway and a bridge over the Colorado River.  Under the Times’ reasoning, the full cost of bypassing our rural town should be counted as benefiting the people of a single rural county.  The money was spent in Smithville, after all, not in a metro area.

People in Smithville rarely used the new road. We drove through town. That’s because the new road wasn’t for us. It was built to speed traffic from Austin to Houston — to make it quicker for urban residents to drive from one city to another. Yet under the Times’ reasoning, the four-lane around Smithville was entirely a rural benefit. 

(Think about how the logic used at the Times would allocate benefits of the interstate highway system. Under the newspaper’s reasoning, the highways would never be built because they aren’t “in” a metro area.)

If you count the per capita expenditure, as the Times has done, the people of Smithville made out like bandits — even if the benefits went mostly to city dwellers.

 The Times’ story was a set up. There are more people living along a mile of road in a city than a mile of road in rural areas. So, of course there is no way per capita spending on roads in rural areas can match per capita spending in urban areas. It’s a fixed game.

Al Cross at the Rural Blog wrote that the Times story was “wholly lacking a rural point of view.” Maybe if the reporters had talked to ONE rural transportation expert, they might have come to a different conclusion. But they didn’t. 

Flawed and confusing stories are published every day. (We’ve done our fair share at the Yonder.) As long as the reasoning used in the Times’ road story remains on the front page of a newspaper, it’s no problem. When this way of thinking begins to change policy, however, we’re in trouble.

 

 

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