Against federal guidelines, states plan to expand freeways

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When President Biden signed the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package last November, many saw it as an opportunity to tackle climate change.

The bill could reduce transportation emissions, which are responsible for 27% of all climate pollution in the United States. With some $600 billion in new funding for the sector, the Biden administration has encouraged state leaders to build mass transit systems and expand “non-motorized” transportation infrastructure, like bike lanes. An analysis by the Georgetown Climate Center estimated that these actions could reduce transportation emissions by 14 million tons per year by 2032, about as much as the annual emissions of 4.5 million passenger vehicles.

However, some policy makers ignore this advice.

According to a new report from the nonprofit American Public Interest Research Group, or PIRG, state and local governments risk wasting federal funds building or expanding major road networks. These “mess-ups,” as the report calls them, would harm local communities and exacerbate climate change, while not solving the traffic and safety problems they purport to solve.

“Freeway expansion harms our health and the environment, fails to solve congestion, and creates a lasting financial burden,” the report said. Although nearly every state has one or more freeway expansion projects underway, the authors highlight seven that would block polluting infrastructure and divert $22 billion from other transportation needs.

One of the projects is the M-83 Expansion, a proposed $1.3 billion project in Montgomery County, Maryland, just northwest of Washington, D.C. According to county officials, the Expansion of the freeway from four to six lanes is needed to “relieve projected congestion” and “improve the efficiency of the road network. Although the project has been on hold since November 2017 as city leaders debate its future, it is still part of the Montgomery County Freeway Master Plan, which means it could still be built at any time.

Washington DC traffic feeding into Maryland. Chip Somodevilla/Grist via Getty Images

Diane Cameron, director of the advocacy group Transit Alternatives to Mid-County Highway Extended Coalition — better known as TAME — said the M-83 expansion is unlikely to solve Montgomery County’s traffic problems and should be removed from the master plan. “Building and extending more freeways is not the solution to congestion, it actually encourages even more vehicles to travel,” she said. “The more you build, the more they come – and the more congestion there is in an endless cycle.”

This cycle is a well-documented phenomenon known as “induced demand,” in which larger highways catalyze a series of societal decisions that return congestion to pre-expansion levels — or worse. For example, more homes and businesses may spring up along a larger travel corridor, creating new destinations that are only accessible by car. Larger freeways may entice people to use their vehicle instead of public transit, leave later for work, or drive away from downtown.

Nationally, induced demand has already negated the congestion benefits of freeway expansion over the past few decades. Although the United States has added nearly 870,000 miles of lane since 1980, a Texas A&M Transportation Institute report released last year estimated that pre-pandemic congestion on American roads is worse than it looks. was in the early 1980s.

Widened freeways “might make your commute a little shorter for a little while, but eventually that traffic will likely come back,” said Matt Casale, PIRG’s director of environmental campaigns and one of the report’s lead authors.

Expressway expansion can cause a constellation of other problems. In Maryland, Cameron fears the M-83 expansion will damage local waterways and put schools and homes in a 500-foot “pollution zone” where they are exposed to increased transportation-related air pollution. – which already kills tens of thousands of people each year. Elsewhere, critics say an 8-mile, $745 million bypass in southwestern Virginia would damage or destroy nearly 600 acres of forest and farmland. And in Duluth, Minnesota, the $510 million reconstruction of a downtown interchange has been criticized for sapping money from bus, walking and biking infrastructure, as well as much-needed road repairs. existing.

Bike commuters in San Francisco. Paul Chinn/The San Francisco Chronicle/Grist via Getty Images

Because freeways and other polluting infrastructure are disproportionately cited near low-income communities and communities of color, freeway expansion can also pose equity issues. In Pennsylvania, for example, a project to redesign the Erie Bayfront Parkway – which could cost up to $100 million – has been criticized for potentially exposing black and brown neighborhoods to more air pollution and separating them from greenways.

“It’s a civil rights issue. It’s an environmental justice issue,” Gary Horton, president of the Erie NAACP, told a local newspaper.

Instead of stepping up efforts to expand highways, Casale called for a “fix-first policy” that focuses on repairing existing infrastructure. According to a 2021 bulletin from the nonprofit American Society of Civil Engineers, the United States already has a backlog of $435 billion in needed road repairs, with an additional $230 billion needed for bridge repairs and road repairs. system-wide security, operational, and environmental improvements.

“As we spend on our roads and bridges, we shouldn’t be building new ones,” Casale said. “We should make sure the ones we have are safe and in good condition.”

The report also urges government officials to prioritize investments in public transport, cycling and pedestrian infrastructure – all of which can effectively solve traffic congestion while minimizing harm to public health and the environment. Cameron added that strategically located affordable housing can also be a transportation solution, if built near existing transit stations that allow people easy, car-free access to urban centers in cities.

These measures will require significant public investment, but the data suggests they are broadly popular among the American electorate. According to a poll released last month by Data for Progress, three-quarters of all likely voters – across all parties – want the government to spend more money on public transport, and a large majority think that improving public transportation would benefit the United States and its communities.

For Casale, Biden’s infrastructure package could represent “a turning point” for American transit. “We can take this cash injection and see it as an opportunity to invest in 21st century transport,” he said. “Options that don’t pollute our air, that don’t worsen the climate crisis and that improve our lives.”

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