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Roads to ruin

Why billions more for pavement is poor policy.

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Published 9/22/1999

More so than in most states, Michigan’s culture and economy have been shaped by its experience with roads and cars. No other program undertaken by state government has affected the lives of residents the way our nearly 10,000-mile state highway system and 109,000 miles of local roads have.

Now, for the first time since Michigan launched its road-dominated transportation policy in 1943, a new debate has erupted in Lansing and in other key regions including Traverse City, Petoskey, Grand Haven, Grand Rapids and Detroit.

At its core are two critical questions:

· Is Michigan’s road-dependent transportation system producing more harm than benefit to communities and the environment?

· Is a policy designed nearly 60 years ago — one that gives short shrift to alternatives — flexible and creative enough to keep the state’s economy and quality of life competitive in the next century?

Visions in collision

Officials from the Michigan Department of Transportation and road-building industries say highways are the bulwark of a state economy that is stronger than it’s been in decades. Most of the things residents need to conduct their lives move on highways, they say. And after years of deferred maintenance, roads are improving as MDOT continues with its intensive repair program.

"As far as we can see, the highway network will remain the backbone of our transportation system," said Louis H. Lambert, MDOT’s deputy director of planning. "I see nothing on the horizon that will change people’s view that their personal vehicle is the way they get around.

"There is not a strong interest in this state for living close together," he added. "People are not intimidated by long distances and they don’t think much about driving two hours to work. For all those reasons, and more, our highway system has served us well and will continue to serve us well."

Extensive research conducted by the Michigan Land Use Institute, as well as a growing body of evidence documented by community leaders and alternative transportation advocates, reveals that all is not going as well as Lambert and other state officials insist. What we and others have found is that state transportation policies come at extraordinary fiscal, social and environmental costs. The result is some of the nation’s worst sprawl, damage to Main Street businesses, increased pollution runoff into lakes and streams, and the wasting of tens of thousands of acres of land.

Detroit is at an especially critical juncture. Because the city completed its highway system in the ’70s, ahead of most state municipalities, it is now among the first forced to rebuild that system. The reconstruction (which began in earnest in 1998) is producing a nightmare in tie-ups, will persist for years, and will be repeated every 25 years or so.

The repair costs are astonishing.

For example, MDOT is considering reconstructing 11 miles of I-94 in Detroit, which includes four miles of interchanges with the Lodge Freeway (M-10) and I-75. The estimated cost for just this one project— $1.3 billion — places it among the most expensive highway reconstruction projects in the nation.

Rail vs. road$

Thomas Hickey, a planner in Philadelphia with one of the nation’s preeminent transportation design firms, said commuter lines built on existing rail beds cost roughly $700,000 a mile, less than one-tenth the price of a four-lane highway. Expanding service simply requires adding new cars, at a cost of $2 million to $3 million each, not widening or increasing the number of rail lines. And a well-maintained rail system does not need to be reconstructed every generation as do concrete and asphalt highways. The heavily traveled Paoli Local that serves Philadelphia, for example, operates on track that was installed in the 1920s.

"Paved highway is not resilient like a steel rail," said Hickey. "Concrete will only flex so much and then has to be torn up, brought back to dirt, and basically rebuilt."

In Lansing, senior MDOT officials say their attitude toward railroads is softening, but just a bit. Although the Engler administration does not support commuter rail for Detroit or any other city, it is working with other Midwest states to spend $400 million, most of it from federal funds, on a high-speed rail network linking Chicago to Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, Grand Rapids, Jackson, Ann Arbor, Detroit and Port Huron. By contrast, the state’s commitment to road building is greater than ever. MDOT is considering building $2.5 billion in new highways in western and northern Lower Michigan. It is the most aggressive and expensive highway construction program proposed since the Michigan portion of the Interstate Highway System was completed in the 1960s and 1970s.

"Just look at the money that’s being spent on roads compared to what’s spent on public transportation or any alternative," said David Bulkowski, associate director of the Center for Independent Living in Grand Rapids, a disability rights organization that works on transportation issues. "The state needs to make a policy adjustment that responds to new needs, that promotes smart growth instead of sprawl, and makes a real investment in public transit."

Adding to the problem, say government and private researchers, is mounting evidence that new and widened roads don’t really relieve congestion. Three prominent studies in as many years chronicle the connection between new and wider roads and more driving, a phenomenon called "induced traffic" or "induced travel."

The research concludes that building roads to solve congestion leaves communities more crowded and more polluted, with less open space and less money for civic projects, and with no alternative for residents stuck in traffic.

In 1997, for example, University of California-Berkeley researchers studied data covering 30 urban counties in California from 1973 to 1990. They found that every 10 percent increase in road space generated a 9 percent rise in traffic over four years, eliminating the expected benefit of a new or widened road.

MDOT did not respond to numerous requests for comment on its perspective regarding induced traffic.

Typically, highway planners continue to insist that roads satisfy demand, and never create it. "Many transportation professionals will argue that induced travel only demonstrates that highway planners have put roads where people want to travel, that is, they have made accurate forecasts," said Robert Noland, an EPA analyst who offered up as proof otherwise a 50-state study that found results almost identical to those in the Berkeley research.

The current road-building philosophy is obviously not working in metro Detroit. Now four times larger than it was in the 1960s, it is the seventh most congested urban center in the United States, according to a study by the Texas Transportation Institute, a research group based at Texas A&M University.

"At one time, it was considered a sign of progress to develop an extraordinary highway system to improve accessibility," said June Manning Thomas, director of Urban and Regional Planning at Michigan State University. "There was no recognition at the time that the more highways you build, the more congestion you’ll produce."

Plan for the future

Gary Naeyaert, MDOT’s chief spokesman, said his agency is aware of growing public concern about sprawl and the need for transportation alternatives. He added, though, that neither the governor’s office nor MDOT see it as state government’s responsibility to get involved in land planning. "We are not a social engineering agency," said Naeyaert. "Our role is to solve transportation problems, not land-use fights."

Counters Bulkowski of Grand Rapids, "The Transportation Department’s role in building roads that weaken city centers, produce congestion in the suburbs, make it impractical to get around except by automobile and result in growing pollution and social inequality is unmistakable. This agency is pursuing a policy of social engineering that is powerful, pervasive, and needs to change."

If you build it, they will drive

The Michigan Land Use Institute, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Benzonia, has just completed an in-depth examination of transit issues in Michigan. The following articles are excerpted from the institute’s special report which, among other things, found:

· The state’s mass transit systems are woefully underfunded while highway construction and repair proceeds at a record pace.

· The state’s marquee communications tool, a guide entitled Five Year Road & Bridge Program, 1999 to 2003, significantly underreports the amount of money earmarked for road construction. Instead of the $510 million indicated by the report, the figure in reality is about $700 million.

· At the same time, the state is evaluating an additional $2 billion in new road construction, with most of the work occurring in northern and western lower Michigan.

· Another $900 million is slated for road widening and interchange improvements. Recent studies indicate that, despite the expense, these roads will be just as crowded as they are now within five years.

· Relatively inexpensive mass transit systems — such as rail — are being virtually ignored by the Engler administration.

· These policies will cause more traffic and pollution, increased sprawl, less open space, and leave no option for those who do not own a car, cannot drive, or would prefer the ease and comfort of commuting via mass transit.

To contact MLUI phone
231-882-4723 or visit its Web site.

Brother, can you spare $118 million per mile?

A Michigan Department of Transportation study into the feasibility of MDOT reconstructing 11 miles of I-94 in Detroit, which includes four miles of interchanges with the Lodge Freeway (M-10) and I-75, shows just how much more expensive than rail relying on highways can be. The project’s estimated cost — $1.3 billion — places it among the most expensive highway reconstruction projects in the nation, according to highway engineers. As much as 20 percent of the project’s budget, or $260 million, would be spent just to manage traffic during construction.

The traffic management portion alone is nearly $100 million more than the state will contribute this year to public transportation agencies throughout Michigan. It also is twice the price of building a commuter rail network in Detroit with three routes — connected to Ann Arbor, Pontiac and Mt. Clemens — totaling 100 miles of track and 30 stations, according to a recent MDOT study. Such a system could serve nearly 20,000 passengers a day and cost just $23.4 million a year to operate.

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