Transportation Act's antiquated thinking puts communities at risk

March 2012 » Departments » LETTERS

The American Energy & Infrastructure Jobs Act, [approved by the U.S. House of Representatives' Transportation & Infrastructure Committee in early February,] reflects an outdated philosophy about how people use America's roads. While it focuses on creating jobs and improving infrastructure, it ignores the importance of safe roads, community, places, and people as part of that equation.

The act will be especially detrimental to urban areas such as Detroit and the inner-ring suburbs that have worked so hard in recent years to improve the quality of life through accessibility and safety in their downtowns and neighborhoods. The very amenities that have drawn people to move, work, and play in the city and nearby communities will be threatened by this act.

The measure will increase traffic, widen roadways, and encourage people to stay in their cars as they speed into the suburbs and exurbs, and away from cities and the local businesses there that count on foot traffic to thrive. In the name of progress, it will have the opposite effect.

In particular, Midtown and Southwest Detroit – two areas that have benefitted greatly from the federally funded Transportation Enhancement Program – would have a hard time winning funding for future projects if Congress passes the legislation in its current form.

Many local projects that Giffels-Webster has been involved in wouldn't have been completed without the federal grants, including the Crow's Nest at 9 Mile Road in Ferndale; the West Vernor Avenue streetscape project in southwest Detroit; and the Southwest Detroit Greenlink.

While such projects could compete for grants under the new act, they would have to go through the same application process as major road and highway projects, and the selection criteria are fundamentally biased toward ones that improve vehicular flow (i.e., adding more lanes and widening roads, which in turn increases traffic and allows vehicles to go faster, making roads more dangerous for other users). For urban communities, projects to enhance streetscapes or improve pedestrian experiences will inherently be more difficult to get funded.

Michigan passed a law in 2010 supporting Complete Streets, which are designed and operated to enable safe access for all users, and many counties and local communities have since followed suit. This federal legislation will make it next to impossible to sustain that headway. Roads need to be not only adequate, but safe for the aging population, bicyclists, and pedestrians and yet this measure does not take those needs into consideration.

One stark example of the legislation's implications: it eliminates the Safe Routes to School program, which has provided funding

to more than 475 Michigan schools to help reduce traffic and pollution near schools, making walking and bicycling to school safer and more appealing, in turn encouraging children to be active and healthy.

The act also ends the technical assistance program operated under a cooperative agreement by the America's Byways Resource Center and eliminates any funding set-aside for a national competitive grant program. If it goes away, it would dramatically impact every Woodward Avenue community from Detroit to Pontiac that has received federal funding through the Woodward Avenue Action Association (WA3). Since 2004, the WA3 says it has received and granted more than $5 million in funding projects. Examples include the 12 Mile Woodward Crosswalk Project with Berkley and Royal Oak; the Midtown Greenway Loop; the City of Birmingham Crosswalk Study; the Bloomfield Township Gateway signage; and the South Oakland non-motorized plan, among many others.

According to Heather Carmona, executive director of the WA3, the National Scenic Byways Program is the only transportation program that funds grassroots efforts for jobs, travel and tourism, economic development, and preservation and has demonstrated success.

This legislation turns back the clock to 1950, when people didn't worry about car pollution or traffic, the middle class began fleeing to the suburbs, and city centers started crumbling. Contact your representative and tell him or her that Congress should be looking ahead to 2050 and envisioning a positive future for our communities and our quality of life.

Scott Clein, P.E., LEED AP
President, Giffels-Webster
Detroit

Following opposition from many organizations to the American Energy & Infrastructure Jobs Act, as of press time the House of Representatives was "revamping" some aspects of the legislation. – Bob Drake

We welcome your opinions.
Please send comments to bdrake@zweigwhite.com
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