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A Growing National Movement, Finding A Fresh Approach

June 1, 1997 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

"For North America, the increasingly imbalanced relationship between the car and city is a crux issue -- a problem that lurks unattended behind scores of others.

Painful as it is, we must face squarely the fact that unless North Americans can rearrange the furniture of their cities, neither cars nor cities nor North American societies in general will function terribly well."


~ Alan Thein Durning Executive Director of Northwest Environment Watch, an environmental research group in Seattle

* New highway construction has cost American taxpayers nearly $90 billion annually over the last decade, and still traffic congestion is worse than ever.

Americans in 1995 made an average of 10 car trips daily from their homes and drove a combined 1.6 trillion miles. That is more than 2.5 times as many miles driven in 1960, and the total is increasing by 40 billion miles a year.

In 1991, Congress passed the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA), a program that directs transportation agencies to substantively address issues such as cost, energy conservation, community livability, and social equity before approving new projects. The program also broke new ground by allowing citizens to participate in deciding how new transportation projects are planned, managed, and financed. ISTEA has provided incentives for less road building and greater public investment in workable alternatives throughout the country. Here are just a few examples:

• St. Louis, Sacramento, Portland, and Atlanta all have invested in or built new subway and light rail lines.

• Maryland has passed legislation that directs the state's investment in roads solely to areas that already have been developed, which will protect farms and forests.

• The mayors of Cleveland's inner suburbs have banded together to oppose a $46 million expansion of Interstate-90 in fast-growing Lorain County, arguing that it would shift population and diminish public investment in their communities.

• Lake and Cook counties in Illinois used ISTEA to finance a shuttle from a suburban Chicago commuter rail station to local employers.

• Boulder, Colorado, invented ECO Pass, a system financed by ISTEA that gives passengers unlimited access to bus routes in a six-county area.

• Ybor City, Florida, built a 2.3-mile street car line through the center of town.

• San Jose, California, built a state-of-the-art child care facility at one of its major transportation hubs.

• New highways proposed for Indiana, West Virginia, California, Texas, and Colorado have been put on hold while local leaders and citizens develop workable plans to ease traffic congestion.

ISTEA's success in encouraging alternatives has led to a pitched battle in Washington between trucking, auto, and construction interestswhich want to increase taxpayer-financed road-buildingand a broad coalition of mass transit activists, community leaders, and business groups. This year, Congress and the White House are negotiating the renewal of ISTEA, with billions of dollars in public spending and millions of acres of sprawl-prone farm and forest land in the balance.

"The transportation/land use issue is like the different forces that combine to allow an airplane to fly. Its a matter of getting all the controls going in the same direction," said Hank Dittmar, Executive Director of the Surface Transportation Policy Project. "Our task in dealing with sprawl is to begin to realign many of these forces that have been pushing outwards. Transportation spending is a good place to start." G

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