Thursday, September 04, 2003

The Irish ghost of Robert Moses

To the extent that Americans, and especially New Yorkers, take an interest in urban planning, Robert Moses would be characterised by many people as the man who destroyed the Bronx (by building an ugly elevated expressway through its heart) and paved over Long Island. His reputation as architect of the suburban lifestyle has taken a battering, but perhaps his descendants can take heart from the fact that his philosophy is alive and well in Ireland. With all the enthusiasm of another organisation with the same initials, Ireland's National Roads Authority is busy paving over green fields and running highways next to older residential areas so that people can live further away from the city and drive their cars there every weekday.

What has driven us over the edge, so to speak, is that the NRA is particularly busy developing plans to pave over our beloved County Meath. The proximate cause is Meath's position directly the west of Dublin. But one might have expected that in a rational weighing of costs and benefits of roads, Meath's incredibly fertile land and (not coincidentally) its thousands of years of settled habitation might have counted for something. There is no evidence that this is the case. The most egregious example is the NRA's plan to run two separate motorways through the center of the county, one a route to the north and the other to the northwest. Ireland is not that big a place, so the distance between a northern and northwestern route near where they begin is about 12 miles. But that means twice the fun for the road building maniacs, and not simply the opportunity to consolidate two roads into one.

Opponents of the roads have crystallised their objections around that the fact that the northwestern motorway is going to go perilously close to the Hill of Tara, which has multiple significant roles in Irish history, let alone its inspiration for the name of the home in Gone with the Wind. The most spectacular remnant of this region's history is the well-known 5000 year old tombs at Newgrange, but archeologists are constantly making new discoveries. We are supposed to be reassured that anything in the path of the bulldozers will be documented and hauled off to a warehouse somewhere, which leaves us about as reassured as Indiana Jones was when seeing the Ark of the Covenant disappear in the bowels of the US government.

One would have thought that with the Irish public finances tanking nearly as fast as Dubya's fiscal policy, financial constraints alone would slow things down. But roads have essentially been exempted from the normal budgetary process by having them run as Public-Private Partnerships, which basically hides the true cost to society of the roads, by making the upfront contribution of the taxpayer look much smaller (it comes later, in the form of tolls, and undisclosed subsidies to the toll operator). Just one fact to highlight the lunacy: Meath's largest stand-alone town, Navan, will be within striking distance of three separate motorways to Dublin when the building is finished. But it will have no rail link.

A protest will take place at Tara this weekend. We wish them luck. As for the NRA's attitude to dissenters, it's straight out of the Moses playbook:

When asked by historian Robert Caro about how he dealt with the resistance to the [Cross-Bronx] expressway, Moses replied, "They stirred up the animals there [the to-be demolished areas], so I just held fast, and that was all we had to do."