Stop feeding the highway building beast
By Andrew Kidde
Highways are as much a part of the fossil fuel burning system as the pipelines that carry oil and gas to market. Not only do highways enable driving and polluting everywhere they go, but in many places, they require driving and polluting, because we have not invested in other ways of getting around, like transit and safe infrastructure for walking, biking, and rolling. As a result, transportation emissions in Washington State now comprise almost half of our climate pollution and bring asthma-causing air pollution to many neighborhoods, particularly poor and people of color communities.
The US has been steadily expanding the highways and state routes for nine decades. We have so many miles of highways, that maintenance has become a huge financial burden, and backlogs of deferred work in states across the country have become legendary. Yet we never seem to be able to provide enough capacity to stop traffic jams. It would seem that widening a highway would alleviate congestion, but our history shows that a year or two after expansion projects, traffic jams return as more and more cars appear. This phenomenon is so well known that traffic engineers have a term for it. They call it “induced demand.” It turns out adding capacity, adds car trips, which adds to climate damage, and chokes communities with air pollution and asthma cases.
So what’s the future of this system? When do we stop expanding it? Should all highways become as wide as the Katy Freeway in Houston?
There never seems to be a good time to stop because there is always a new place of congestion where the local community clamors for relief. Also, highway expansion projects take decades of planning, engineering and construction, and projects are further split into physical segments. Few politicians want to pull the plug on a project that has received millions in engineering and permitting funds, and a next segment of an existing project is always there. So… do we think we’ll expand highways forever?
The truth is that the best time to stop highway expansion is right now… because highway pollution is choking our communities with asthma; because highway pollution is our biggest source of the climate pollution; because we never will, and never can, solve the congestion problem; because highways are dangerous and deadly; and because we need the money that would go into highway expansion to instead build a safe, affordable, sustainable transportation system based on transit, walking, biking, and rolling.
Yet as you read this, the state legislature is negotiating a new multi-year transportation package that is likely to include substantial expansion of highway capacity, including State Routes 2, 3, and 18 as well as Interstates 5, 390, 405, and 590. Collectively these projects will produce massive air and climate pollution, while providing only temporary relief from traffic congestion.
Highway expansion is ineffective, self destructive, and expensive. Please join Front and Centered, Disability Rights Washington, and 350 Seattle in our campaign to stop the madness. Here is the campaign web page.