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Against federal guidance, states plan to expand highways

When President Biden signed the $1.2 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Package into law last November, many saw it as a Opportunity to combat climate change.

The bill could reduce transport emissionswho is responsible for 27 percent of all US climate pollution. With some $600 billion in new funding for the sector, the Biden administration encouraged state leaders to build public transportation systems and expand”non-motorized” Transportation infrastructure, such as bike paths. A analysis of the Georgetown Climate Center estimated that these actions could reduce transport emissions by 14 million tons per year by 2032, almost as much as the annual emissions of 4.5 million passenger vehicles.

However, some policymakers are tossing out that advice.

According to a new report from the nonprofit US Public Interest Research Group, or PIRG, state and local governments are at risk of wasting federal funds to build or expand major highway systems. These “wastages,” as the report calls them, would harm local communities and exacerbate climate change, all while failing to solve the traffic and safety problems they claim to address.

“Highway expansion harms our health and the environment, does not resolve congestion, and creates a lasting financial burden,” the report says. Although nearly every state has one or more highway expansion projects in the works, the authors highlight seven that would block polluting infrastructure and divert a whopping $22 billion from other transportation needs.

One project is the expansion of M-83, a proposed $1.3 billion project in Montgomery County, Maryland, just northwest of Washington, DC According to county officials, expansion of the highway from four to six lanes is necessary to “relieve projected congestion” and “improve the efficiency of the highway network.” Although the project has been on hold since November 2017 while city leaders debate its future, it remains part of the Montgomery County Highway Master Plan, meaning it could still be built at any time.

Traffic from Washington DC that feeds into Maryland.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Diane Cameron, director of the advocacy group Transit Alternatives to the Expanded Mid-County Freeway Coalition — Better known than TAME — said the M-83 expansion is unlikely to alleviate Montgomery County’s traffic problems and should be removed from the Master Plan. “Building and expanding more highways is not the solution to congestion, it actually encourages more vehicles to circulate,” he said. “The more you build, the more they come, and the more congestion there is in an endless cycle.”

That cycle is a well-documented phenomenon known as “induced demand”, in which larger highways catalyze a series of social 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 highways can influence people to use their cars instead of public transport, leave later for work, or move further from the city center.

Nationwide, induced demand has already canceled out the congestion benefits of highway expansion in recent decades. Although the US has added nearly 870,000 lane-miles of highway since 1980, a Texas A&M Transportation Institute report published last year estimated that pre-pandemic congestion on US highways is worse than it was in the early 1980s.

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

Highway expansion can cause a constellation of other problems. In Maryland, Cameron is concerned that the expansion of M-83 will damage local waterways and put schools and homes within a 500-foot “pollution zone” where they are exposed to increased transportation-related air pollution, that already kills tens of thousands of people every year. Elsewhere, critics argue that a $745 million, 8-mile project detour in southwestern virginia would damage or destroy nearly 600 acres of forest and farmland. And in Duluth, Minnesota, the $510 million reconstruction of an exchanger in the center it has been criticized for sapping money from bus, pedestrian, and bicycle infrastructure, as well as much-needed repairs to existing roads.

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

Because roads and other polluting infrastructure are disproportionately cited near low-income communities and communities of color, highway expansion may also raise equity concerns. In Pennsylvania, for example, a proposed Erie Bayfront Parkway redesign, which could cost up to $100 million, has been criticized for potentially exposing Black and Latino neighborhoods to increased air pollution and cutting them off from greenways.

“This is a civil rights issue. This is an environmental justice issue,” Gary Horton, President of the Erie NAACP, told a local newspaper.

Instead of doubling down on highway expansion, Casale called for a “fix it first policy” that focuses on repairing existing infrastructure. According to a 2021 report card from the nonprofit American Society of Civil Engineers, the US already has a $435 billion backlog of road repairs needed, with an additional $230 billion needed for bridge repairs and environmental, operational and safety improvements throughout the system.

“As long as we’re spending 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 shape.”

The report also urges government officials to prioritize investments in public transportation, cycling, and pedestrian infrastructure, all of which can effectively address 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 give people easy, car-free access to urban city centers.

These measures will require significant public investment, but the data suggests they are widely popular with the American electorate. According to survey published last month According to Data for Progress, three-quarters of all likely voters (of all parties) want the government to spend more money on public transportation, and the vast majority think that improving public transportation would benefit the US and its communities. .

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


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