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HIGHWAY PROPOSALS ARE OUT OF STEP

Not since the phrase "unsafe at any speed" became a convention has the anti-highway backlash been so strong.

Congestion, pollution, an oil war and suburban sprawl have coincided with the last days of the interstate.On May 3, a group of 400 or so zealots with their hearts in a carless world met at an International Auto-Free Cities Conference in the urban environs of New York University.

Two days later, traffic engineers and bureaucrats with hearts in asphalt and concrete met in the auto-bred wilderness of the Howard Johnson's in Secaucus, N.J., to discuss the national gridlock.

What was amazing about these sessions was this: Both groups agreed the pave-paradise, put-up-a-parking-lot approach to the highway was dead.

Not so in Washington.

President Bush and Congress, charged to write the reauthorization of the five-year $105 billion Surface Transportation Assistance Act, which comes due in September, are blowing our chance to stage the roadmonger's funeral.

Bush's original proposal to add the equivalent of two interstate highway systems to the 44,000-mile network now in place was worse than mere forfeiture.

With its skimping on mass transit and its indifference to energy savings, the proposal was an oil man's leap into the auto abyss.

Sadly, the reauthorization program proposed by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., to rescue us from that leap, toes the same precipice.

Presented as radical by supporters, the bill, due for a vote on the Senate floor, differs from the president's proposal by permitting states to use half the money from the highway trust fund for public transportation.

It also compels them to tie transportation to land-use planning.

But these changes are meager at best and impotent at worst.

For one thing, the plan fails to penalize auto dependency; its advocates continue to say naively that the states' mandate to comply with the Clean Air Act will magically curb the car.

For another, it underfunds planning and overfunds high-tech tricks.

The plan finances road maintenance but allocates such sums to states on the basis of their energy use, which only encourages more gas consumption.

Instead of emphasizing bridge repair, it finances new bridges as zealously as it fixes old ones.

Finally, the proposal would pay for funds finishing the interstate system when the 35-year-old program is as finished as we need it to be.

In an era short on fossil fuels and long on awareness of their deadly pollution, we should leave half-measures by the side of the road and move more dramatically against the car.

Make gas taxes pay to repair the environmental damage caused by cars.

Eliminate hidden subsidies that benefit an autocentric culture.

Forget free cars for public officials.

Scratch tax benefits that allow corporations to take write-offs for parking spaces.

Charge trucks by the weight that erodes our highways and bridges.

The government got us into this mess. Let the government get us out.