Local politicians and businessmen are all hot and bothered about kicking the Nothern Beltline into high gear. Their enthusiasm for the project seems to revolve around three claims:
1) economic development
2) ease congestion
3) everyone else is doing it, so we should too (the parental admonishment about “if everyone jumped off a bridge” leaps to mind)
Let’s take these one by one, shall we?
While you’d think the principal reason for building an interstate grade highway would be transportation purposes, this seems to be a distant second on the minds of the beltline’s boosters. No, they seem much more preoccupied with the promise of economic development. A recent study estimated $7.1 billion dollars in economic output (spread across up to 30 years). Rather than getting into the nitty gritty of the analysis provided by this study , I’d like to ask a broader question about highway construction as an engine for economic growth: how does it work? A quick survey of research found that it often doesn’t. A study (pdf) by UC Berkeley concluded that “economic
growth observed near highways could be a redistribution of growth that would have occurred elsewhere” and went on to argue that while there is a clear pattern of growth occuring along highways, many times that growth is simply being channeled along the highway corridor rather than another part of the region. It should be noted the study was commissioned by the pro-beltline group Coalition for Regional Transportation, itself a part of the Birmingham Business Alliance. Given the above, such economic forecasts of wild profits and economic gains should be taken with a considerable grain of salt.
There is also a more fundamental problem with highways as economic development tools: they’re unsustainable. I don’t just mean unsustainable in the environmentalist sense, but also in plain terms of consumption and demand. This leads to the second argument in favor of the northern beltline: it will ease congestion. As has been mentioned before (LINK), increasing lanes has not been shown to reduce congestion. A Texas Transportation Institute study looked at metro areas that added increased roadway capacity versus those that did not. It found that “areas that exhibited greater growth in lane capacity spent roughly $22 billion more on road construction than those that didn’t, yet ended up with slightly higher congestion costs per person, wasted fuel, and travel delay.” The explanation for these results is primarily one of induced demand.
Source: Texas Transportation Institute
So if adding new lanes and highways isn’t the answer, what is? The biggest reductions in congestion and vehicle miles traveled have been achieved through a combination of congestion pricing, increased mass transit service, and a shift in urban form toward more compact, walkable neighborhoods.
Too bad we don’t have any walkable urban neighborhoods that could use investment in this town…
Oh yes, and the final explanation for why we should risk serious environmental impact, continue to neglect an already developed urban infrastructure, and replicate disposable development? According to Senator Shelby: “We are the only major city, major metropolitan city that has half of a beltline around it. We got to finish it”. After all, Atlanta has a beltline that circles the city and Houston has gone concentric with their beltlines! And as two of the most congested cities in the country, these are clearly the sorts of models for traffic management we should emulate.
On a more philosophical note, Shelby’s rush to emulate outdated approaches to transit planning (overzealous beltway construction) is symptomatic of exactly the sort of behind the times attitude that has plagued Alabama for years. While other cities like the aforementioned Houston, Dallas, and Charlotte have shifted towards investment in more diverse transportation strategies like mass transit and reducing auto travel demand (even Atlanta is changing things up), Alabama plods along obliviously expecting new highways to fix in Birmingham what they haven’t anywhere else.
Lest you think I’m blowing this out of proportion, witness an outsider’s take on the beltline approach to transportation:
Birmingham’s continued decline is at root a consequence of it’s acquiescence to the economic strategies of least resistance. To the extent is has succeeded in revitalizing itself, it has created solutions based on it’s own assets and potential (the growth of UAB and Healthcare as one example), not lowest common denominator development strategies. Birmingham can do better. In an era in which anyone can build new strip malls and roads, Birmingham could activate its historic neighborhoods, superb building stock and environmental amenities, assets which Atlanta and Charlotte can’t match. It can follow Portland’s example and refuse the short-term gain of a cheap highway and instead put into place investments that will return much more in both economic gains and quality of life.
Or we can build another Best Buy, Michael’s, Movie Theater, and Home Depot.Tags: ALDOT, Growth, Transportation