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

Transportation Funds

Air Date: Week of

When Congress returns in January, at the top of the list is how to divide transportation dollars. Historically, new highways have gotten the biggest part of this cash, but commentator Keith Schneider says, there is a growing cry in many communities for the road builders to stay away. Keith Schneider is the executive director of the Michigan Land Use Institute and comes to us via station W-I-A-A in Interlochen, Michigan.


CURWOOD: When Congress returns in January, at the top of the list is how to divide transportation dollars. Historically, new highways have gobbled up the biggest part of this cash. But as commentator Keith Schneider says, there is a growing cry in many communities for road-builders to stay away.

SCHNEIDER: When highway engineers in Michigan unwrapped a plan 2 years ago to build a new bypass outside Travers City, they expected public delight. They were wrong. Hundreds of people turned up at public meetings to oppose the 4-lane road as a threat to the environment, neighborhoods, and downtown businesses. Right here, in the state that invented the mass-production of automobiles, pointed questions are being asked about how best to move people and goods. Increasingly, new roads are being rejected as the answer. Critics have amassed convincing evidence that more concrete not only does not solve transportation problems, it appears to aggravate them.

Consider this telling fact: nearly 1 trillion dollars has been spent on transportation since 1985, most of it on new highways. Yet congestion is worse than ever. And the toll on the environment is rising. Half of the air pollution in the United States is produced by cars and light trucks.

In 1991 Congress passed a transportation bill that anticipated the current debate. The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act was designed to give citizens more authority to decide how transportation projects are planned in their communities. The law provided incentives for greater public investment and workable alternatives. As a result, St. Louis built a new light rail line, and Boulder, Colorado, established a popular system that gives riders unlimited access to bus routes in 6 counties.

It's true that when transportation choices are weighed, some places still want roads. In Maine, for instance, voters recently approved a $58 million widening of the Maine Turnpike to relieve congestion. But across the nation, many more communities are looking for alternatives. Pitched battles are underway to block new highways in Maryland, Virginia, Illinois, Indiana, and 6 other states. The nation, in short, is in the throes of a different sort of road rage. The debate has advanced the public's understanding about the links between road-building, sprawl, and environmental degradation. By focusing on saving money, neighborhoods, and forests, local leaders are working to block bad ideas and rallying support for better ones. The public's call for alternatives to new roads certainly merits much closer attention from lawmakers in Washington.

CURWOOD: Keith Schneider is Executive Director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. He comes to us from WIAA in Interlochen, Michigan.



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