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New Road Policy Means More Than Pavement

April 16, 2006
Commentary By TONI GOLD

Connecticut has a transportation crisis, but it isn't just a need for more of the same old stuff; it's a need for different - even for roads. What would a new roads policy look like?

It would not include much, if any, widening of existing roads, and probably no building of new roads. It could include gateway tolls, modest improvements to I-95, EZ Pass and all the other latest high-tech and innovative tweaks - maybe even privatized toll roads.

A new roads policy would accept the fact that we have hit the wall in building our way out of traffic congestion because of the reality of induced traffic.

This means that as roads are widened, more traffic is induced to use them, making them as congested as they were in the first place. It is very much a "build it and they will come" phenomenon, the corollary of which is, "don't build it and they won't come."

As Roy Kiener, former president of the Surface Transportation Policy Project, said a few years ago right here in Hartford, "If you build highways for 40 years, you get driving; if you build something else for 40 years, you get something else." It is past time for Connecticut to start building something else - other modes of travel, not only mass transit, but walking and biking facilities as well, all linked to state and local land-use plans.

Thus, a new road policy would aim to get more out of the existing system. It should start by protecting the vast public investment already made in highways with "a fix-it-first" policy. The National Governors Association has published a best practices brief that defines "fix-it-first" as a strategy to "build upon and maintain previous asset investments before building new" in order to "better leverage limited funds." In other words, the first priority is the condition of the existing infrastructure. Sounds like a Yankee virtue to me.

The states with the widest range of fix-it-first strategies are Oregon, Washington, Maryland and New Jersey. These are all states known for their smart growth policies. All have changed their traditional approach to transportation, and all are growing faster than Connecticut.

Another way to get more efficiency out of existing roads is to "complete the streets." "Complete the streets," one of those ingenious phrases like smart growth that conveys an instantly understandable concept, is a creation of the cycling community, and means that all users, bicyclists and pedestrians as well as motorists, are considered equally through all phases of a road project. This is a quantum leap beyond the traditional "cookbook for cars" approach.

"Context sensitive solutions" should also be part of a new roads policy. A notion less than a decade old, context sensitive solutions is both a process - seriously engaging all stakeholders in planning and decision-making for a road project, and a product - a design that recognizes and is sensitive to the context beyond the pavement, be it historic, natural, scenic or economic, such that the road becomes a community enhancement rather than a necessary evil.

While these may seem like revolutionary ideas, a number of leading highway engineers are talking the new talk. "Wider, straighter and faster is not always better," says Gary Toth, the director of planning and program development for the New Jersey Department of Transportation. His agency is pushing a new policy of "no road building without place-making first," and actually provides the funds to municipalities to do the land-use planning that will guide a road project.

In New Hampshire, Transportation Commissioner Carol Murray says: "If you don't link transportation and land use, both will fail." Her department has put its long-range transportation planning into the hands of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, which can serve as a neutral convener of all parties with an interest in the state's future.

And Tom Warne, former director of the Utah transportation department and now a consultant to state transportation agencies, debunks the four "myths of context sensitive solutions": that it costs more, takes longer, won't be safe and increases the agency's liability. "It's the right way to do business," he says.

The early results of context sensitive solutions practice are in from a handful of states; road projects are emerging smaller and cheaper, are completed more quickly, and have the support of delighted mayors and citizens. Redesign and litigation are down, and traffic is moving just fine.

There are lessons here for Connecticut. All of our large projects that involve new and widened roads should be put on the back burner while we take a careful look at our whole system.

If lots more transportation funding is to be authorized in this legislative session, as seems likely, those dollars should not be applied mindlessly to the existing "plan," which differs little from the state Department of Transportation's longtime highway agenda.

The cost of building that wish list is breathtaking. The projected "improvements" to just I-84, the Route 8/84 interchange, I-95 Southeast, Route 6, and the Route 11 extension total over $3 billion, and all of these project are likely to give little temporary relief before induced traffic fills them up again. We can put that money to better use.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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