November 29, 2004

Decentralize the federal government 

posted by Paul Smith @ 11:08 PM
I'm always disappointed to see the extent of the sprawl of the D.C. metro region whenever I visit my home town of Frederick, Maryland. This past Thanksgiving weekend was no exception. State and local planners have simply not done enough to improve the transportation infrastructure to handle the massive growth north along the I-270 and, past Frederick, the I-70 corridors. Housing prices in the District and in Montgomery County -- the suburban area directly north of D.C. where most government and contractor workers traditionally reside -- are absurd, so people are living in Frederick County, Washington County to its north, and even West Virginia and southern Pennsylvania, commuting an hour and a half or more each way to government jobs. They're driving, of course -- the Metro has not been extended past Shady Grove in central Montgomery County, and a new commuter rail line in Frederick inexplicably takes you out of the way to a place called Point of Rocks before coming back towards D.C. This once semi-rural area in the Catoctin Mountains has become like every other exurb ever, with perpetual rush hour, McMansions and golf courses as far as you can see. Now, I'm no conservative -- I frankly believe the town's new-ish Borders bookstore is a much-needed civilizing and liberalizing force. Accomodating the demands of a changing and more suburban demographic is one thing; making smart and forward-thinking infrastructure decisions is hard but has a far greater impact on quality of life.

But let's just suppose that, despite a history of much-lauded smart growth efforts, Maryland can't get it's act together with respect to the I-270/I-70 corridor as it impacts Frederick County and points north and things continue pretty much along the trajectory that's been set out. The root of the problem is that all the jobs are in one place, and there's only so much space to live in. Is there any reason why we can't or shouldn't decentralize the federal government? Why can't the Department of Agriculture be relocated to Topeka, or the Department of Commerce to Chicago? Does the FCC really need to be in downtown D.C.? It would be easy to make a national security argument for decentralization. Put the State Department in NYC near the United Nations. The Defense Department is likely permanently wedded to Washington because of the Pentagon and the executive command structure, but other than that, to this writer it seems arbitrary in this age of air travel and telecommunications the need for all appendages of the federal government to be clustered together between the banks of the Potomac and Capitol Hill. (Quick update: when I say "decentralize the federal government," I am certainly not meaning by that the typical right-conservative desire for devolution of federal power to the state level.)

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