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More Highways Won’t Solve Congestion

Turning an old idea on its head

October 28, 1999 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

(A version of this article was published in the Detroit Free Press on October 28, 1999)
By Keith Schneider

Is there a single shared experience that southeast Michigan’s 4.8 million residents loathe more than being tied up in the region’s worsening traffic? In Lansing, the state Department of Transportation has responded by unleashing nearly $1.4 billion a year in new spending for highway repair and construction. The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, which helps decide transportation spending policy, says $24.2 billion more is needed over the next 20 years to modernize existing roads and bridges in the seven-county region, and to build new ones.

The question, of course, is whether such a formidable taxpayer investment in roads will ease congestion. A host of new studies, including an analysis by the Federal Environmental Protection Agency last January, provides strong evidence that not only will the repairs, widenings, and new roads fail to ease congestion, such a strategy is bound to make traffic worse.

The studies conclude that every 10 percent increase in road space generates a 10 percent increase in traffic within several years. The road-dependent strategy has led to an expensive, self-perpetuating cycle: More and wider roads attract more cars and trucks, which increases congestion, which leads to more and wider roads, and so on. This is the reason that despite spending nearly $1 trillion nationwide on transportation over the last decade, most of it on new and wider roads, congestion across the country is worse than ever.

In Michigan, this phenomenon — which engineers call “induced demand” — is even more pronounced than in most other states. Since 1943, when MDOT first unveiled its road-dominant transportation policy, the state aggressively pursued highway construction as its chief goal, treating any other means for moving people and goods as an after thought. While public bus systems withered and trains vanished, Michigan built a 10,000-mile state highway network and improved 109,000 miles of local roads. Of the $2.8 billion invested this year by the state transportation agency, almost 95 percent is for roads.

Highway engineers and road builders say their work is a triumph of planning and execution. Highways are the bulwark of a state economy that is stronger than it’s been in decades. And after years of deferred maintenance, roads are improving as MDOT pursues an expensive repair program.

Critics, though, assert that the highway-dominated transportation program also has encouraged some of the nation’s worst sprawl, damaged Detroit and other downtowns, increased polluted runoff into lakes and streams, and wasted tens of thousands of acres of land.

With no other convenient way to get around, operating a fleet of vehicles has become the second largest expense in family budgets. There are now 8.4 million registered cars and trucks in Michigan, 900,000 more than in 1991. During the same period, the human population grew by just 500,000 people.

Such steep vehicle growth rates mean that we cannot build our way out of congestion. Given that certainty, it seems more than appropriate to rethink a state transportation policy that is now nearly 60 years old. A more flexible and creative approach is needed to keep the state’s economy and quality of life competitive in the 21st century.

Other states — particularly Maryland, Maine, Oregon, and Washington — are already on this path. They are concentrating on repairing existing roads and bridges and largely ending new highway construction in rural areas. These states also are devoting much more taxpayer investment to buses, commuter train service, and high speed inter-city rail lines. Constructing a mile of commuter rail costs $1.2 million and with regular maintenance lasts for decades. The heavily-traveled Paoli Local that serves Main Line communities in Philadelphia, for example, operates on track that was installed in the 1920s. In contrast, reconstructing and widening one mile of I-94 in Detroit could cost $118 million, and because concrete only flexes so much, the highway will need to be rebuilt again in 25 years or so.

Maryland and Oregon, moreover, are linking transportation spending to state legislation to curb sprawl. Planning for more walkable communities, after all, costs much less than new pavement and improves the quality of life by making it possible to drive shorter distances — or occasionally, maybe not even having to get into a car at all.

Talking about alternatives to personal vehicles is always a tricky business in Detroit where the culture and economy are so closely tied to cars. Nevertheless even General Motors has suggested reviving commuter rail passenger service between Lansing and Detroit to aid its workers stuck in traffic. And with increasing vigor, a host of community leaders in and out of Detroit are pressing the state to broaden its vision while documenting the rising social, fiscal, and environmental costs of an over-reliance on road construction.

In Petoskey, Traverse City, and Grand Haven local governments are working with citizens to replace proposed new highway bypasses with less expensive and more effective alternatives. And an emerging state plan to build a new interstate thruway from Toledo to Jackson is meeting resistance among rural residents who worry about the highway’s effect on communities and their quality of life. Even Gov. John Engler is talking about linking and improving the bus systems in Wayne and Oakland counties.

This fall, Michigan has an exceptional opportunity to begin designing a new transportation policy. The legislature and the state Transportation Commission are set to renew Public Act 51, the state transportation spending law. In the initial public hearings, citizens and local officials have urged state transportation leaders to invest more money in alternatives to highways and to support efforts in the legislature to pass new sprawl-fighting laws. That such views are gaining greater currency in Michigan reflects not only a maturing attitude about the relationship between transportation and development, but also just how difficult it has become to get around.

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