What a Village with a By-Pass Can Do

by Martin Harris 

Martin Harris

Physically and visually, there are more similarities than differences between Brandon, VT and Jonesborough, TN. Both places grew up along the originally colonial Great-Road (but two-lane) main stagecoach highways, were small local commerce centers for surrounding farmland, developed with maybe three thousands of population, three blocks of two- and three-story brick buildings, and three or four churches along the main drag, were pretty much ignored by larger-scale 20th century progress, and recently have each acquired their own little outlying suburban enclaves. And there are differences. The not-so-visible political-outlook ones I won’t discuss in this venue, but there’s a big and visible one just outside of the village downtown of Jonesborough but not of Brandon. It’s the main highway bypass, now four-lane with wide center median, fronted by a lot of mostly-strip, some campus, commercial development generating a lot of property and sales tax revenues and a lot of jobs, with lots of low-density, fairly-large-scale manufacturing and retail space and lots of parking. Jonesborough’s four-lane by-pass was put through by the State Highway Department in the ‘60’s, about when Brandon first rejected any such proposal for itself. Now the 18th century Great Road through Brandon, re-labeled as US 7, has a daily vehicle count, mostly through-traffic, close to 20 thousand, while its equal in Jonesborough carries maybe a tenth of that number, all of it local traffic.

That broad-stroke comparison explains why Jonesborough can (and fairly frequently does) close off its Great Road for such activities as blue-grass Friday-night concerts, Hallowe’en festivities, street fairs, and seasonal parades, while Brandon can get permission only rarely from higher levels of government for temporarily pedestrianizing what is now a Federal Highway. It also explains why Jonesborough’s Great Road (Main Street) has multiple vehicle speed bumps nicely decorated as imitation-brick-pavement for pedestrian crossings, and Brandon doesn’t. And it explains why Jonesborough can now plan to build a similarly raised pedestrian plaza all across its Great Road in front of the major downtown building, the neo-Greek-Revival four-column temple-of-local-governance which was once the County Courthouse. When you have a by-pass, such small-town pedestrian-friendly options are do-able. When you don’t, they’re not.

Widespread modern-Vermonter antipathy to highway construction is now well-established, as the recent histories of the once-planned west-side Interstate, the Middlebury by-pass, and the Burlington Circumferential Highway all illustrate. Interesting historical contrast: the multiple village by-passes in the early 19th century layout of the military road now labeled Route 22-A. The best answer to the “why?” question came in an off-hand comment from one of Middlebury’s Beautiful People at the height of the furor over the revelation of the west-side-located College’s fingerprints in the form of helpful land options on a plan for an east-side US 7 by-pass: “if you improve the roads, you just get more people, more business, more traffic, but if you don’t, growth won’t happen and things will stabilize at a sustainable level.” * * * * *

It’s quite legitimate (Humble Scribe opinion) for the voting majority of the modern Vermont citizenry, if they so wish, to put their anti-growth/pro-sustainability preference into such development-preventions as no-by-pass decisions, an opaque (that’s a kind adjective) construction permit process, and the price-commerce-out-of-the-State electric power decisions now being made. SCOTUS Justice Louis Brandeis would have called such departure-from-historical-norms State policies “laboratories for democracy” . Here’s his 1932 comment: “It is one of the happy incidents of the Federal system that a single courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory, and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.” In Vermont, the experiment is still under way; an observer can’t yet say, as he can with respect to the “does-reducing-class-size-improve-student-achievement” 40-year-long experiment in education, that the answer is “no”. Some interim findings are presently trickling in: economic and commensurate demographic results have become visible.

By most measures, Vermont is now the highest-tax State and one the highest cost-of-living States, conditions irrelevant to the upper- and lower-income and –wealth quintiles but critical to the middle class, which has begun to flee in response, because it enjoys neither extraordinary discretionary spending freedom nor a spectrum of government subsidies. Similarly, it’s now deemed one of the most anti-business States, which explains not only out-migration of the age 25-44 cohort, but the relatively low unemployment rate and even the shrinking school enrollment as middle-class families depart. All of these “novel” conditions show up in all the usual stats. What doesn’t show up, stat-wise, is the relationship of, say, highway by-pass prevention, to these conditions. That’s best observed through comparative drive-by inspection, not of Jonesborough and Brandon, but of the nearest Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas: Johnson City and Burlington, both urban regions SMSA-qualifying with around 200,000 in population.

What you’ll see is a lot more peripheral commercial development in and around “The Little Chicago of the South” than in and around “The Queen City”. The subdivision of such SMSA’s into a patchwork of municipalities makes it nearly impossible to do a direct statistical comparison of, say, population, income, and spending levels with retail or manufacturing square footage, but a windshield survey shows disproportionately much more extensive non-residential “growth” in population areas where it’s welcomed (TN) than where it’s resisted (VT). And the corollary in economic activity which creates jobs which generate wealth, and consequently in tax revenues which subsidize the higher-service-demand “tax-minus” residential sector, shows up in famously lower cost-of-residence in areas which welcome such “tax-plus” growth than in areas which don’t. Thus, there’s a price for growth-prevention, and the Vermont lab experiment will eventually show whether the State’s population is able and eager to pay it. It’s entirely plausible that it will, as those of its citizenry who can’t and aren’t, leave. As second-smallest State, already (for quite different reasons) a magnet for the top and bottom income and wealth quintiles, Vermont can readily divest itself of those middle few in opposition to this long-term two-tier economy strategy and build an economically stable one around the twin key elements of high passive income and low-income worker subsidies. The Brandeis lab experiment is in process.