Living on earth
December 12, 1998 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service
When highway engineers in Michigan unwrapped a plan two years ago to build a new bypass outside Traverse City, they expected public delight.
They were wrong. Hundreds of people turned up at public meetings to oppose the four-lane road as a threat to the environment, neighborhoods, and downtown businesses.
Right here, in the state that invented the mass production of automobiles, pointed questions are being asked about how best to move people and goods. Increasingly, new roads are being rejected as the answer. Critics have amassed convincing evidence that more concrete not only does not solve transportation problems, it appears to aggravate them.
Consider this telling fact. Nearly $1 trillion has been spent on transportation since 1985, most of it on new highways. Yet congestion is worse than ever. And the toll on the environment is rising. Half of the air pollution in the United States is produced by cars and light trucks.
In 1991, Congress passed a transportation bill that anticipated the current debate. The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act was designed to give citizens more authority to decide how transportation projects are planned in their communities. The law provided incentives for greater public investment in workable alternatives.
As a result, St. Louis built a new light rail line. And Boulder, Colorado established a popular system that gives riders unlimited access to bus routes in six counties.
It’s true that when transportation choices are weighed, some places still want roads. In Maine, for instance, voters recently approved a $58 million widening of the Maine Turnpike to relieve congestion.
But across the nation, many more communities are looking for alternatives. Pitched battles are underway to block new highways in Maryland, Virginia, Illinois, Indiana and six other states. Albuquerque, New Mexico, just elected Jim Baca as the new mayor in part because he opposed a new freeway through Petroglyph National Monument that would accelerate the city’s sprawl.
The nation, in short, is in the throes of a different sort of road rage. The debate has advanced the public’s understanding about the links between road building, sprawl, and environmental degradation. By focusing on saving money, neighborhoods and forests, local leaders are working to block bad ideas and rallying support for better ones. The public’s call for alternatives to new roads certainly merits much closer attention from lawmakers in Washington.