Robert Caro is the famed biographer of legendary New York planner Robert Moses and is currently working his way through a multi-volume epic biography of Lyndon Johnson. What connects the two is that both Moses and Johnson were skillful accumulators and wielders of power and this topic fascinates Caro.
In a feature article on Caro, he mused on how people with power make decisions that have little to do with the public good. His first lesson was when he observed with amazement how Moses got the New York State Assembly to easily pass an authorization to build a bridge in a location that made no sense.
“I got in the car and drove home to Long Island, and I kept thinking to myself: ‘Everything you’ve been doing is baloney. You’ve been writing under the belief that power in a democracy comes from the ballot box. But here’s a guy who has never been elected to anything, who has enough power to turn the entire state around, and you don’t have the slightest idea how he got it.’”
The lesson was repeated in 1965, when Caro had a Nieman fellowship at Harvard and took a class in land use and urban planning. “They were talking one day about highways and where they got built,” he recalled, “and here were these mathematical formulas about traffic density and population density and so on, and all of a sudden I said to myself: ‘This is completely wrong. This isn’t why highways get built. Highways get built because Robert Moses wants them built there. If you don’t find out and explain to people where Robert Moses gets his power, then everything else you do is going to be dishonest.’ “
It reminded me of this story of the three mile-long Tappan Zee toll bridge that lies on the highway from New York state to Connecticut. Puzzlingly, it is built at one of the widest spots in the Hudson river. By shifting the bridge a few miles south, the river would have been much narrower and the bridge would have been enormously cheaper to build and maintain. So why was that not done? Because then the toll revenues would have, by law, gone to the Port Authority of New York, whereas governor Thomas E. Dewey wanted the state to get the money. So he decided that the bridge should be built just barely north of the Port Authority’s jurisdiction.
Now the bridge is old and requires repairs that will cost billions of dollars, largely because of its enormous length.