CAN A NEW INTERSTATE ROADWAY BE BUILT TODAY?” THE FAILURE OF TRANSPORTATION PLANNING – DEMOLITION DERBY & COLLABORATIVE GRIDLOCK

In economic development parlance – the bridge to nowhere evidentially leads to somewhere – the notion that a carefully planned and constructed major roadway will always result in a positive contribution to the local community.   To assure these local benefits we have established extensive and continuous metropolitan (and rural) transportation planning processes involving every level of government and the general public.

However, planners today recognize that even “best efforts” of public involvement in transportation planning do not increase acceptance of the outcome of the process and assure state and federal funding.

The reality today is technical analysis doesn’t quite matter.  Public input is more like a demolition derby where contestants seek to destroy one another as they argue for, or against, a new roadway typically reaching collaborative gridlock forcing legal action.

The resultant collaborative gridlock ends up making the decision to build a new road a political and judicial decision rather than a matter of transportation planning documented need.

It raises the question – “Can a new interstate roadway be built today?”

It’s a simple fact that transportation helped develop the Midwest.

Beginning with water transportation that brought early explorers, water transportation moved people and natural resources.  Just think about the early development of the Midwest, specifically the need to transport trees from forests to mills and then move the finished lumber to build the early cities, all done by water transportation. The next phase of Midwest development history, natural resources including copper, stone, and  iron ore was (and still is) shipped by water transportation to various Midwest industrial complexes, typically locations nearby Midwest big cities.

In later years rail transportation became more important in the development of the Midwest aiding the movement of people to populate the many small towns that “sprang up” along every (inter urban) rail line.  The same rail system also delivered goods to these remote settlements returning with farm products for consumption by city residents.

With the dawn of the automobile age in the 1900’s, the need for roads replaced some, but not all, dependence on water and rail transportation.  However, the fast growth of automobile transportation demonstrated need for more roads many times replicating the same routes serviced by water and rail.

I guess we should not be surprised that even in the early 1900’s automotive proponents and government planners sought to establish a national system of roads –  yes, undoubtedly to promote sales of automobiles but also to enrich economic development opportunities for local communities the same way water and rail transportation infrastructure did for birth and expansion of major and minor Midwest cities.

(For more information on the importance of transportation and how lost transportation connectivity created Midwest ghost towns see Richard C. Longworth’s Caught in the Middle – America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalization  and my commentary at https://chuckeckenstahler.wordpress.com/2009/11/22/why-we-have-gost-towns-in-the-midwest/)

Based on this history we can easily agree that transportation infrastructure improvements provide economic development opportunities to local communities.  The reverse corollary argument is also true; communities not providing the best transportation systems are denied economic development opportunities.

So if new transportation infrastructure provides economic development opportunities, why is it so complex and difficult to build a new road?

That’s the answer sought by Matt Dellinger author of Interstate 69 – The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway.

Interstate 69

Dellinger chronicles a 35-year effort of economic development proponents in Daviess County, Indiana to build a new segment of the Federal Interstate Highway System.  By filling a void in the Federal Aid-Highway system which did not include any interstate roads serving southern Indiana (and beyond), economic development proponents sought to reverse a regional agricultural and manufacturing economic decline by construction of a new interstate road segment from Indianapolis to Evansville

The effectiveness or non-effectiveness of current transportation planning is well illustrated by the supporters and detractors of proposed Interstate-69 – the so called 1,400 mile NAFTA transportation route from Port Huron (Michigan) to Mexico via Brownsville, Texas.

The real story is about government transportation process and procedures and whether in today’s society can a fully participatory collaborative transportation planning process reach an amicable solution identifying a transportation alignment. 

No better example of a “collaborative process demolition derby” exists.  No better example of “collaborative gridlock” can be found destroying the virtues the well established transportation planning procedures.

Dellinger aptly discloses motives and goals of both those in support and those in opposition as well as the lobbying and legal strategies used in support and opposition.

Reading Interstate-69 sheds light on the complexity and difficulty of modern transportation planning.  It’s important reading for every community planner and economic developer and demonstrates that:

  • Transportation is an unquestioned determinate of local civic and economic vitality.
  • All transportation systems – water, mass transit, air, rail, pipe line or telecommunication – have an impact on the physical landscape.
  • Transportation systems direct to varying degrees, where people live, where jobs will locate serving as basic infrastructure for urban and rural development patterns.
  • Prudent local economic development strategy must seek optimum transportation accessibility – regardless of mode (including internet and satellite telecommunication transportation networks of the future).
  • There are no “shovel-ready” immediate new transportation projects – transportation projects are life-time career efforts requiring years to process a final decision.
  • The transportation planning process and procedures to render a specific project decision are unfamiliar to the vast majority of citizens both those affected and those unaffected.
  • Public unfamiliarity leads to fear and an inherent mistrust of those responsible for the transportation planning process.
  • The collaborative transportation planning process, rather than building consensus, most times fractionalizes interests into non retractable opposing forces.
  • Government action to modify generally accepted behaviors such as greater use of mass transportation or close proximity live-work living environments takes years or generations to secure measurable changes from historic transportation usage patterns.
  • Transportation planning is a generational “futures” exercise where by planning decisions today leave a legacy for future generations.

 

 “So can a new interstate roadway be built today?”

Many small towns across the Midwest were founded on the basis of their transportation availability – water, rail and highways.  Some are now just names on a map (or GPS), acknowledgement of a time in history when local economies and transportation access was different.

Today, others suffering job dislocation and declining population believe the economic development opportunity of a new road will fight “being an unpopulated forgotten name on the map”.

There is a strong argument well versed in Midwest development history that defends the notion that new roads will provide economic opportunity not otherwise available to communities with lesser transportation access.

As long as there is hope for reinventing local economies using transportation superiority, new roads will be built.

However, I don’t see any easing of difficulties in reaching public consensus; in fact, it may be more difficult to reach consensus in the future requiring greater reliance on political and judicial decision making.

What’s a more interesting question to consider is – How the public will pay for these new roads?

Will we see more public funded roads in the future or will we rely upon public or private toll roads or other “pay for use” methods?

My guess – more new roads (probably using current alignments), different designs based on usage and funded by innovative public and private sources.

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