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Who is Served by More Concrete?

Across the nation, distrust of roads

October 21, 1998 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Built on a fertile ridge near Lake Champlain, Addison, Vt., has long defined itself by two seemingly unchangeable resources: the expansive green pastures that feed hundreds of dairy cattle, and old state route 22A, the region’s main highway that runs through the center of town.

Five years ago, though, this peaceable balance was upset when the Vermont Agency of Transportation announced a plan to widen the two-lane highway. The proposal to add 14 feet of asphalt to the 26-foot wide road ignited a civic rebellion over small town values, historic integrity, and the quality of life. In a region where space had never been an issue, 14 feet of extra pavement was suddenly the only issue.

Most of the town’s 1,100 residents were unified behind one view. They saw the widening as a threat to Addison’s sense of itself as a place apart. “The problem was they wanted to take this rural highway and make it like an Interstate,” said Margaret Barnes, a member of the Addison Board of Selectmen. “It would increase speeds. It would invite more traffic. People would go flying through town. It was a big change and people here said they just didn’t want it like that.”

While classic in its dimensions, the dispute turned out to be completely novel in its results. When it ended last year, Vermont was a changed place. It became the first state to rewrite road design standards to reflect new public expectations that highways should not only serve cars and trucks. Addison residents expressed an increasingly popular sentiment in Vermont, and across the nation, that other values needed to be considered like pedestrian safety, providing for bicyclists, and making sure that improving a road did not produce collateral damage to communities, such as encouraging new strip malls outside of town and weakening downtown businesses.

Such ideas have swirled around the discussion about roads in Vermont and elsewhere since the 1960s, with limited effect. Until changes were enacted in the 1991 federal transportation law, which provided citizens more access to road engineers much earlier in the planning stages, highway agencies were well insulated from the give and take of public hearings and comment.

Vermont’s new standards are a direct result of the 1991 law, which encouraged states to reconsider how they designed roads and promised ample federal funds to complete the process. Next spring, Vermont’s new design standards will be applied for the first time when a $2.6 million construction project in Addison widens route 22A by no more than six feet.

“Addison was one of the many places in this state where we were having trouble,” said David Scott, a highway engineer and Director of Project Development for the Vermont Agency of Transportation. “With almost every project, people told us, No!, that’s not what we want. We were at a standstill. It was change or do nothing. We had to remember who we work for. So we changed.”

By no means is Vermont alone. Addison’s protest and the new attitudes of Vermont’s engineers reflect a formidable transition in how communities, states, and the federal government are setting transportation priorities. What began a decade ago as a neighborhood-based movement to open the highway planning process to more public oversight is now influencing transportation policy and spending in countless communities, many state capitals, and especially in Washington.

Hank Dittmar, a director of the Washington-based Surface Transportation Policy Project, a research and advocacy organization, 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.”

What has surprised highway builders is how much traction such views have gained in the political infrastructure. In 1991, a Democratic Congress and a Republican President, George Bush, teamed up to approve a $155 billion , six-year transportation spending law that for the first time provided citizens and local government officials the authority to help plan and decide how public investments in transportation were made. The law provided billions of dollars to encourage communities to develop alternatives that reduced air pollution and billions more to increase mass transit ridership. Bus routes in major cities expanded and new light rail lines were started in Dallas and other congested Sunbelt cities.

Last summer, a Republican Congress and a Democratic President teamed up again to pass a $217.3 billion, six-year transportation spending law that advances the previous reforms and will almost surely result in investing more federal money for repairing existing roads and constructing alternatives than it will to build brand new highways.

The 1998 law 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. Those include building light rail lines, increasing urban and suburban bus service, constructing bike paths, developing transportation technologies that reduce pollution, even paying for land use planning that encourages stronger downtowns and more compact communities where people can walk.

Auto companies, oil producers, truckers and developers are convinced the new direction will lead to more congestion and harm the nation’s economy. But they also quietly acknowledge that transportation may be the one area of major domestic policy where lobbying muscle by the wealthiest industries failed to deliver what they most wanted, a return to the days when America charged across the landscape with new concrete.

“Since 1970, the only transportation option that has shown consistent increases in every decade is a single driver in his or her car,” said William Fay, president of the American Highway Users Alliance, a Washington-based trade association. “The question is do you believe the purpose of public policy is to engineer social behavior, or do you believe as we do that the purpose of public policy is to facilitate a public need? There’s no mystery about why roads are congested. We aren’t building enough new ones.”

Underlying the nation’s new views about roads and cars are two related ideas that have come of age. The first is that years of intensive highway construction has resulted in a distinctively American pattern of sprawling development. A generation ago, families typically could function well with one or two cars. Today, simply to survive in suburbs, families often must own and manage fleets of expensive vehicles.

The second idea is that America has spent nearly $1 trillion during the past decade on transportation, most of it on roads, and traffic congestion is worse than ever.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the number of cars and light trucks increased from 72 million in 1960 to 193 million in 1995, a 265 percent increase. During the same period the population grew by just 44 percent. Americans drive a combined 2.2 trillion miles annually, more than twice the miles driven in 1970.

“You look at numbers like those and you reach one conclusion: We can’t build our way out of congestion,” said John Horsely, Associate Deputy Secretary of Transportation. “The number of miles we are driving is increasing two or three times faster than population. There is no way we can keep up by building three times as much road capacity.”

For the moment, light rail is the hot alternative. In September, Vice President Al Gore attended the dedication in Portland, Ore. of the Westside MAX, a new $965 million light rail line running from Gresham to Hillsboro, and described how the line fit into what he called a national “movement for liveability.”

“More and more, communities across the nation are looking to places like the Portland area because they understand that as a nation, we can no long afford to waste half a billion hours stuck in traffic,” Mr. Gore said. “We can no longer afford to lose 50 acres of farmland every hour. Every time we lose another park to a parking lot, or a father has to drive so far that he gets home too late to read a bedtime story, we lose a small part of who we are and what makes our communities special.”

Indeed, one of the startling results of the 1998 legislation is the number and location of light rail projects that are planned. Among the 25 cities considering light rail systems are such traffic-choked Sunbelt cities as Austin, Tex., Albuquerque, N.M., Charlotte, N.C., and Phoenix, Ariz.

Rural areas also are turning to rail. Citizens and local government officials in Aspen recently convinced the Colorado Department of Transportation to replace a proposed new highway into town with a $56 million light rail line. A plan to spend roughly $100 million more to extend the line 37 miles to five other communities in the Roaring Fork Valley has gained federal authorization and is awaiting approval from local governments.

“We have a rural area with urban problems when it comes to traffic,” said Alice Hubbard, the community outreach manager for the Roaring Fork Railroad Holding Authority. “So many people come here and our economy is based on the quality of life. There is a real interest in trying to figure out alternatives.”

The Chicago Transit Authority recently completed a $340 million reconstruction of the Green Line, which runs from suburban Oak Park through the West Side and the downtown Loop and out to the city’s South Side.

Now the Authority is working with Bethel New Life, a church-based community development corporation, and the Center for Neighborhood Technology, a non-profit Chicago civic organization, to develop a $10 million housing and shopping district around the subway stop at the intersection of Lake Street and Pulaski Road in the heart of the West Side.

“There is an intimate connection between transportation and how land is used within walking distance,” said David Chandler, the manager for economic development at the Center for Neighborhood Technology. “In some sense this is so obvious. But somehow we forgot until the last few years.”

Indeed, new thinking about alternatives to cars, and how to more sensitively fit roads into communities has come with such speed that it is causing pain in state transportation agencies and annoying some analysts. According to a study published last summer by Jonathan Richmond, a researcher at the Taubman Center for State and Local Government at Harvard University, most of the nation’s new light rail systems are not attracting scores of new riders to public transit, as their promoters hoped, and have not done much to relieve traffic congestion. The reason, said Mr. Richmond, is that most light rail passengers were already riding the bus.

For instance, an average of 27,000 daily riders used the light rail line in Portland, Ore. in 1996. A survey by the Portland transit agency found that just 12,000 of those passengers were new to the mass transit system. “We have to get away from an obsession with a particular technology and see how we can optimally improve the entire transportation system,” said Mr. Richmond. “We’ve had a failure to adequately assess the performance of these rail systems.”

George Boulinea, the Director of Planning and Programming at the Georgia Department of Transportation, said the Atlanta subway system has attracted passengers and performed well. But his agency also is intent on constructing a second beltway around Atlanta to relieve congestion. The proposed new highway, though, also has generated an opposition movement among residents and some local government officials. “There are no silver bullets to solve our problem,” said Mr. Boulineau. “Whatever combination you choose, we think new road capacity still needs to be part of the picture.” In Vermont, state highway officials say that engineers trained to build roads wider , flatter, and straighter had difficulty adjusting to the new design standards. Colleagues became demoralized as road projects were scrapped or redesigned. The Vermont Agency of Transportation lost some senior staff members to retirement.

“Part of the paradigm shift is away from transportation professionals being the only experts who know what’s right for the public,” said Bruce Bender, the Vermont transportation agency’s policy analyst, “and towards being a little more customer oriented.”

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