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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Take the High Road

Air Date: Week of

Congress is steamrolling opposition to its big-spending transportation bill that pours hundreds of billions of dollars into new highways. But a growing group of critics says that's the wrong route to solving our transportation problems. Jeff Young reports from Washington.


CURWOOD: Woe unto he who stands between a politician and pavement. That’s been the motto in Congress as senators steamrolled over opposition to a 318 billion-dollar transportation bill. Supporters of the measure promise these hundreds of billions for highways will bring us safer roads and shorter commutes. But growing numbers of transportation reformers doubt the pledge, and do not like the road the transportation bill would take us down. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports from Washington.

YOUNG: Dan Burden is on a journey, one he hopes will end with more of us out of our cars and on our feet. Burden’s been in transportation planning for decades, directing the state of Florida’s efforts to encourage bicycling and walking.

He’s also head of a group called “Walkable Communities,” a job that has him on a sort of nationwide pep talk for pedestrians, preaching the benefits of fewer cars and more bikes, shorter commutes and longer walks. Burden’s inspiration came from another American traveler – John Steinbeck and his last book, "Travels with Charlie."

BURDEN: Toward the end of the book he made a startling revelation that I discovered when I was only 20 years old reading that book. Steinbeck says America is out of sync with its values. We say we’re for children, beauty, safety, all these things. And then we build exactly the opposite. And what my journey of these eight years to already 1,500 communities is proving is, Steinbeck was right. If anything, we’re even more out of synch with our values today than when Steinbeck wrote that book.

YOUNG: As evidence, Burden points to the sprawling, car-oriented development surrounding most American cities – landscapes he finds alienating, unhealthy, aesthetically displeasing and, in this case, downright dangerous.


YOUNG: Burden takes me to an intersection just inside Washington D.C.’s beltway, where New Hampshire and University Avenues meet in a mass of pavement. The area was clearly built for cars, but many of its residents are immigrant workers who don’t drive. Instead, they make a daily crossing that has turned deadly. In three years, nearly 50 pedestrians were hit by cars here. Four have died.


BURDEN: We’re looking down at six lanes of traffic coming in from every quadrant, and then swelling up to as many as 10 or 11 lanes at the intersections.

YOUNG: Now, when you look at something like this I’m guessing you’re not seeing things going the way they should?

BURDEN: No, here we’re seeing a lot of pedestrian activity -- a tremendous amount in fact. And what we’re seeing is the pedestrians, some are them are trying to make it to islands and across, but a great number of them are going away from the intersection, crossing mid-block where they have to go across six lanes. So what we’re saying is that a lot of motorists, because they’re trying to get into that light, they’re not watching for the pedestrians and they’re taking out their lives.

YOUNG: How does this happen? How did we end up with a road like this?

BURDEN: Well, we end up with these -- what I call “super streets” or “streets on steroids” --because we simply have not carefully thought out where we need streets. And we have no other choices on transportation so we put more and more people into vehicles and try to get through intersections, and then widen them even more. It turns out to be a dead end street.

YOUNG: Burden argues for fewer highways and more money for mass transit. He puts towns on what he calls “street diets” – converting traffic lanes into bike paths and sidewalks. He says cars in towns should move more slowly, but more smoothly, not racing to each stoplight. Towns with these elements have a higher quality of life, Burden says, the true measure of success in transportation.

BURDEN: The more money we spend on building more highways, the more we’re going to worsen the conditions. The case for congestion by spending more money on it has always proved the wrong way to go (laughs).

YOUNG: But it’s exactly the direction he sees Congress heading with its six-year plan for transportation. The Senate’s majority leader, Bill Frist, pushed a 318 billion dollar bill. President Bush balked at the price and threatened a veto. Frist and 75 other senators ignored him.

FRIST: You know, we can’t ask our fellow citizens to join the great American workforce, and then simply sit here or sit as that daily commute grows from minutes to 30 minutes to 60 minutes, indeed to hours. It’s a jobs issue, it’s a quality of life issue, it’s a safety issue.

YOUNG: The bill would increase funding for all forms of surface travel – light rail, buses and maybe Amtrak, too. But most of the money – at least 80 percent – would go into highways. John Horsely says that’s where it belongs.

HORSLEY: We think that the American preference for the automobile is logical. We’ve got to expand capacity.

YOUNG: Horsely’s executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, which represents state transportation departments. Horsley applauds the Senate’s spending, but also wants Congress to streamline the highway planning process. He wants fewer delays from environmental analysis and faster construction starts. Environmental groups object to this streamlining, saying it will reduce protections for clean air and open spaces. Horsely says those groups just don’t like roads.

HORSLEY: What many of these national environmental groups want to do is tie up the system with such complexity that the citizens can’t get their way and see the transport improvements actually realized. The unfortunate thing that has happened over time is that it now takes six years to complete the environmental review required for a major transportation project. That’s far too long and we want to see that fixed.

YOUNG: But one former member of Horsely’s group disagrees with the streamlining approach. Ann Canby was Delaware’s transportation secretary for eight years. Now she leads the Surface Transportation Policy Project, a reform group based in Washington. Canby says the rules Horsley wants changed aren’t the real roadblocks.

CANBY: I don’t believe the environmental review process is where the greatest amount of delays occur. And from my experience as a transportation secretary, you get things done faster when you have community consensus and you build broad support for getting things done, rather than special interest support for getting things done.

YOUNG: Canby wants to merge transportation plans with those for an area’s land use – planning for smart growth that's best achieved at the city or county level. But she fears streamlining highway plans will concentrate decision-making power higher up at the state Departments of Transportation.

CANBY: The state DOT’s are for the most part a one product company: they’re very good at building roads. They understand less well how to build a good pedestrian environment, or a bike environment, or how to support transit investments.

YOUNG: And that’s what weighs on Dan Burden’s mind as he continues his pedestrian pilgrimage. He finds more communities ready for new ideas to improve lifestyles and landscapes. But he wonders if those ideas will get a chance in the coming highway construction.

BURDEN: More and more Americans are tired of the ‘burbs, getting tired of that rat race. So all the funding for 50, 60 years that went into building the suburbs and starting to create the dilemma that we’re now facing, is starting to turn back on itself.

And our philosophy for our transportation is going to have to reverse itself. It’s got to be more flexible, it’s got to be more understanding, and it’s got to be more grassroots. So I personally think this transport bill is one of the key decisions Congress is going to make for a long time.

YOUNG: The transportation debate moves to the House later this month as Representatives consider a version of the bill that could top 370 billion dollars. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Washington.

[MUSIC: (no artist info) “Stink” GET SHORTY SNDTRK (PolyGram Records - 1995)]



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