Greening Our Infrastructure
After the Economic Stimulus Act in early 2008 (which gave us shopping money) and the huge bank bailout later in the year failed to turn around a tanking economy, attention has turned to another massive stimulus bill—one that would fix the nation’s crumbling roads and bridges.
At first glance, it sounds good. Public works programs, as we saw in the 1930s when hundreds of thousands of workers were employed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), can play a huge role in putting people to work and boosting the economy. A public works program focused on infrastructure could do the same thing.
But we need to think about what we’re fixing. Our hope is that the Obama Administration will craft such improvements in a way that reduces reliance on automobiles and encourages more responsible patterns of development. The massive Interstate Highway System, begun under President Eisenhower, opened up a lot of opportunities, but its promotion of sprawl has since dominated our development patterns.
A new vision for America’s transportation infrastructure should:
- Reduce funding of sprawl-inducing bypasses, new highways through rural land, and other highway projects that reinforce automobile-based development.
- Dramatically increase funding for public transit, including light rail, inter-city rail, low-emission buses, and bus rapid transit. Bus rapid transit was pioneered in Curitiba, Brazil and operates more like a subway system with riders paying in advance and entering from raised platforms.
- Support bicycle pathways and bicycle lanes on roadways to make bicycle commuting and bicycle travel more viable. Bicycle access should be considered with all roadway projects.
- Support pedestrian-friendly, urban and suburban development with access to dependable public transit.
- Provide incentives that influence driving behavior, including greater use of high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes on highways, congestion pricing, downtown access tolls, employee-provided transit passes, and elimination of employee parking subsidies.
- Manage stormwater using such features as porous pavement and curbless shoulders with infiltration swales—so that rainwater can infiltrate the ground rather than being collected in storm sewers.
- Enhance ecological health and biodiversity by restoring native habitats along highways and rails.
- Create wildlife passages across roadways. Wildlife underpasses and overpasses can reduce roadkill as well as habitat fragmentation.
- Rather than creating new cloverleaf interchanges and bypasses for single-occupancy vehicles, investing in the nation’s infrastructure should help to shift our nation away from its automobile dependence. Just as the Civilian Conservation Corps accomplished more than putting people to work—addressing topsoil loss and erosion, for example—so too can a new public works program focus-ed on infrastructure serve broader purposes.
Published January 2, 2009