Friday, October 12, 2007

On a Road to Ruin?

In June of 1956, the federal government enacted a piece of legislation which would change the face of this country in a way I doubt many could have imagined at the time. The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 created a "system of interstate and defense highways" which would connect almost every major city in the United States. For what it's worth, the idea of a system of limited access highways connecting defensive installations in the United States was not a terribly bad idea. The decade in which the bill was passed was marked by an increasing sense of hostility between the Soviet Union and the United States, and there was great fear that the battles of World War Three would be fought not along the deutsche-deutsche Grenze, but rather in Virginia's tidewater or in the hills of California. President Eisenhower had seen the effectiveness of the German Autobahnen and was eager to provide America with a means of transporting troops quickly across the country in the event of hostilities.

For a variety of reasons which I will not discuss here, the Cold War never escalated into direct hostilities. The Interstates have served their purpose in moving the National Guard around during times of crisis and in evacuating cities (very poorly) during national emergencies. However, the main outcome of this act was a contribution to the sprawling suburban development and complementary urban blight that would characterize growth in the United States for the next five decades.

It is likely that some degree of suburbanization would have occurred regardless of the Interstate System, and it certainly was not the sole factor in the middle class's sense of a suburban manifest destiny. The Interstates and their state-created counterparts enabled a strip of tract housing and auto-oriented shopping centers to stretch beyond the horizon, and in so doing, created a crisis.

Critics of this auto-oriented, unsustainable form of development came from a wide range of backgrounds, and over time their voices multiplied and increased in volume. The fight to change the course of American development originally allied two unlikely groups: farmers found themselves lobbying for the same types of legislation as urban dwellers. Indeed one of the major impetuses behind the earliest growth management legislation was the protection of "resource areas." Oregon determined that suburban development was rapidly destroying farmland, resource areas, and the scenery for which it is widely known. The passage of Senate Bills 10 and 100 beginning in 1969 marked the start of what would eventually become known as the "smart growth" movement.

The mid-1990s marked the coinage of the term "Smart Growth." Today, the term is probably a household term in many families. One of the biggest events in making the term more well known occurred when, in 1997, Maryland passed the Smart Growth Act. This act had many of the same goals as other growth control legislation throughout the country. Maryland saw the importance of protecting farms, resources, the inner city, and especially, the Chesapeake Bay. The Bay has long been an economic resource for Maryland, but it is widely known that the Bay is in danger. Decades of sprawl and pollution have weakened the Bay's ecosystem, and this in turn has hurt Marylanders.

Only ten years after the passage of the Smart Growth Act, it is likely too early to tell whether any major impact has occurred in Maryland. It seems to have at least changed attitudes, however. Many "new urbanist" redevelopments are occurring around transit stations throughout the region, and Governor O'Malley is encouraging a tripling of MARC regional rail service. When federal aid was not available, the state even managed to construct the first phase of Baltimore's north-south light rail line.

Yet it seems that perhaps the planners haven't quite gotten the message across to everyone in state government. While transit investment has increased, the state is still investing in major highway infrastructure. While this is not abnormal (in fact, Maryland does a better job funding alternatives than most states) for the United States, it does mark a disturbing trend for what purports to be a smart growth state. As I have opined before on this page, the end of the auto age is at hand. I'm not being fatalistic, but the auto-dependent culture which American society is based on at the moment is being stretched to the breaking point by high oil prices. The market closed this afternoon with Light Sweet Crude over $80 a barrel. Regardless of market fluctuations, the supply of oil is decreasing and the demand for it is increasing faster than ever. America will not be able to long sustain this pattern of auto-dependent sprawl.

So, it generates some suspicion when Maryland decides to create a new tollway across Washington's northern suburbs, a tollway which lies mostly along or outside of the Preferred Funding Area created by the Smart Growth Act. Congestion, economists tell us, is the market's way of charging drivers for the externality they are creating by using the transportation system at peak hours. By constructing new roads, Maryland is decreasing this cost. This will encourage people to make the same types of economic decisions they have been making since the federal government started building ribbons of asphalt across the country.

It is time that Maryland reassessed the need for the Intercounty Connector. The tollway will be a parallel freeway to the Washington Beltway, but will lie just south of the southern-most Baltimore bypass, Route 32, which complements another southern belt (Rt. 100) and the full Baltimore Beltway. If this highway acts as its predecessors have, we should inquire as to whether Maryland will truly be acting as a smart growth state.

Six years ago, I watched Atlanta, freeway capital of the South, kill off a similar northside tollway parallel to Atlanta's perimeter highway, only 30 miles further north. Of course, northsiders didn't kill off the Northern Arc because they were proponents of smart growth or environmentalism; they were more interested in NIMBYism. Still, if Atlanta can cancel a freeway, surely Maryland can. It is time for the Old Line State to rethink its transportation priorities. The time might even be right for a revamed smart growth law. The state should ask itself whether this highway will truly serve the needs of Marylanders in 2050. In five decades will we curse Maryland for not building this super highway or will we lament the lack of true alternatives to the sprawlscape of the late 20th Century?

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