Monday, March 28, 2016

Freeway decay: The Atlantic turns to Little Rock

Posted By on Mon, Mar 28, 2016 at 3:37 PM

The Atlantic has been reporting on the damage done to major cities across the U.S. by freeways, thanks particularly to design of  the interstate system in the 1950s. It's a familiar story in Little Rock, thanks to I-630, but it's been revved up again by the Highway Department's desire to blast 10 lanes of concrete through a downtown that has been reviving, all in the name of cutting a few seconds off the commutes of suburbanites.

Now The Atlantic turns its attention to the latest in Little Rock. Headline:

The Cities Doubling Down on Highways

Physically expanding roads doesn't cure congestion. So why are places like Arkansas spending millions to do just that?
Good question. I think you've seen it written here a time or two hundred.

The article includes comments from Tim McKuin, who's formed a grassroots group to fight the original idea.

He says a 10-lane freeway would harm the wetlands near the river and cause noise and pollution harmful to nearby residents. (An initial plan sought to make the highway 12 lanes.) “They say, ‘For future success, we have to bring more and more cars to downtown Little Rock,’ but it’s already dominated by parking,” he told me, as we walked through the River Market district and restaurants and bars brimming with people on a spring night. “If we bring 50,000 more cars a day it’s going to be harder for this area to expand.”
Yup. The article notes, too, how "urban renewal" demolished historic neighborhoods, often leaving bare ground or, at best, parking lots.

Little Rock is not alone. Freeway builders are up to the same game in cities all over the country. And, happily, they are running into resistance just about everywhere. Arkansas is behind the curve, of course, but no more is there simply a reflexive cheer at the state's idea to build more interchanges, ramps and monuments of concrete. (And please, make them as plug ugly as possible.)

The expansions are curious especially given the numerous studies that show that widening roads doesn’t reduce traffic. When Texas expanded the Katy Freeway in Houston to 26 lanes to reduce congestion, for example, travel times increased by 30 percent in the morning and 55 percent in the evening.

“Congestion has been looked at pretty carefully [and the conclusion is that] it’s difficult to build your way out,” said Robert Krol, a professor at Cal State Northridge who has studied this issue.
Federal money favors freeway building, however. And cars particularly dominate the discussion of "transportation" in Arkansas. The article notes the recent defeat of a transit tax in Pulaski County and suburban growth  feeds the freeway frenzy. As the suburbs grow, they grow in political clout.

This formula doesn't sit well with everyone.

Highway departments in many states operate as independent fiefdoms with little oversight or accountability. They often over-estimate the benefits of widening highways or of building new ones, while under-estimating costs, said Krol, the CSUN professor. That’s the case in Arkansas, according to Warwick Sabin, a state representative who opposes the highway widening. The Highway Department is governed by an appointed commission created in the 1950s as a response to corruption, he said. Members serve 10-year terms.

“Over the years, what’s developed is that the Highway Department doesn’t feel accountable to members of the Legislature, and by extension, they don’t feel accountable to the voters or citizens, or anybody else in the state of Arkansas,” he told me.

The Highway Department must first get approval from Metroplan to go forward because the proposed highway would be wider than policy allows in the region’s long-range plan. It needs a waiver; Metroplan has not indicated how it will vote. Sabin says that as city leaders have expressed concerns about the widening plan, the department has threatened to pull funding entirely and spend it somewhere else in the state if it doesn’t get to expand the lanes.

“They act like a spoiled brat in the playground,” Sabin told me.
Oops. That's the last highway dollar he'll see in HIS (my) legislative district.

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