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TRANSPORTATION PLANNING (continued from previous page)

December 1, 1999 | By Kelly Thayer
and Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Hank Dittmar, a director of the Washington-based Surface Transportation Policy Project (STPP), a research and advocacy organization that helped to write ISTEA, said the goals of activists like himself were clear. "We needed to think more broadly about our auto-dominated transportation system," he said. "It's not working well. It's leading to unbelievable traffic congestion. It's degrading the quality of life. It's resulting in neighborhoods we don't really want to live in.

"Cars are important. We all use them. At the same time though, we need to start adding some other choices for people."

Federal Support

What has surprised highway builders is how much traction such views have gained in Washington and state capitals. Last summer a Republican Congress and a Democratic President teamed up to pass the "Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century" (TEA-21), a $217.3 billion, six-year transportation spending law with a 40% funding increase compared to ISTEA.

The law describes where and how to invest federal taxpayer dollars for roads, bus and rail programs, bicycle and pedestrian trail systems, land use planning, and environmental protection. It is so flexible in its spending priorities that of the $169.5 billion directed to federal aid for highways, more than half can be spent on other transportation options. These include building light rail lines, adding and improving urban and suburban bus service, and constructing bike paths. There also is a new provision that pays for land use and transportation planning to encourage stronger downtowns, less traffic congestion, and more compact communities where people can walk -- this is the program to which Traverse City has applied.

Under TEA-21, Michigan is scheduled to receive, on average, $825 million in federal transportation funds each year from 1998 to 2003. It's an average annual gain of $310 million, or 61%, compared to ISTEA. In addition, the 1997 rise in Michigan's gasoline tax and other fees has added about $300 million a year to the state Department of Transportation's budget, which is set at $2.8 billion for fiscal year 1999.

Right now, in response to complaints from motorists statewide about the poor condition of existing roads, the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) is spending 95% of its highway funds on repairs and 5% on new construction. But TEA-21 has suddenly made the agency's desire to build $2 billion of new highways in northern Michigan, and several more new highways in west Michigan, more economically possible.

Whether taxpayer dollars actually are spent for these highways depends in large measure on how citizens take advantage of the TEA-21 reforms for public participation to become more actively involved in planning decisions. "We've found that transportation activism works, even in places that are highly resistant to any public input," said Don Chen, research manager for the Surface Transportation Policy Project.

"We can't build our way out of congestion."

Underlying the nation's new views about roads and cars are the realities that recently have come into focus:

• Years of intensive highway construction have resulted in a distinctively American pattern of sprawling development. The nation has spent nearly $1 trillion for transportation during the past decade, most of it on roads, yet traffic congestion is worse than ever.

• A generation ago, families typically could function well with one or two cars. Today, simply to survive in far-flung suburbs, households often must maintain fleets of personal vehicles, at an average cost of $5,000 each per year.

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