The Freeway Revolt Returns, This Time Over Widening

And Boston's MBTA moves ahead with service even cuts after getting a $2 billion check and more in this week's The Mobile City.

The freeway fights of the 1960s and 1970s (this poster, from 1969, refers to opposition to a freeway in D.C. that was ultimately scrapped due to protests) are back again. (Poster: ECTC Collection in the Washingtonia Division of the D.C. Library, accessed via Flickr)

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Welcome to “The Mobile City,” our weekly roundup of newsworthy transportation developments.

In the 1960s, as the Interstate highways made their way through the middle of our cities, a growing number of city-dwellers rose up in protest to fight their construction. The urbanites lost many of the fights in the “freeway revolt,” but they did win several big ones, and their effort forced the rethinking of the worth of urban freeways that continues to this day.

The fight also continues, but on different terrain. This time, it’s freeway widening projects that are drawing the ire of urban advocacy groups. In both Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, civic activists are pushing back against plans to widen freeways, and not just in the big cities. Meanwhile, in Texas, the Harris County government is suing to stop the widening and relocation of I-45 through the city.

How to pay for the roads and transit we already have remains a live issue, one that the Biden administration’s “American Rescue Plan” hasn’t taken off the table. But the COVID-19 stimulus package, as this column reported last week, has given mass transit agencies across the country the money they need to maintain their current levels of service into the next calendar year at least. This development has some in Boston scratching their heads over the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s (MBTA) move to cut service after receiving nearly $2 billion in coronavirus relief money.

The services the transit agencies provide are most appreciated by the essential workers in the service and healthcare industries. Other groups that depend on them include low-income citizens and households of color. The Norfolk City Council in Virginia, led by its Black members’ objections, placed concern for these riders uppermost in voting to reject a plan to revamp the city’s bus network.

In Three States, Pushback Against Freeway Widening

Has the “freeway revolt” made a comeback? It appears the answer is yes, though the battleground has shifted. Now, it’s freeway widening that has drawn opposition from urban advocacy groups, many of whom argue, as a January commentary in City Observatory did, that road widening invariably brings with it its own increased congestion. (Don’t forget, either, the Portland troubadour whose “ballad of induced demand” went viral in 2018.) Right now, groups in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Texas are doing their best to stop freeway widening projects.

In Milwaukee, the Milwaukee Independent reports that social-justice, public-interest and environmental advocates are moving to bury once again a freeway-widening project they thought had died. In his annual budget address, Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, said his budget would focus on “improving infrastructure, addressing climate change and increasing racial justice.” But according to a statement from one of the opponents, the interfaith social-justice advocacy group MICAH, two of those goals are in conflict with each other in Evers’ revival of a plan to widen east-west I-94 through Milwaukee.

“MICAH’s opposition to rebuilding I-94 between the Marquette and Zoo Interchange lanes is longstanding,” Rev. Joseph Jackson, president of MICAH, is quoted as saying in the article. “We joined other community groups in a federal lawsuit in 2017 to stop expansion. Monies were not included in [former Governor Scott Walker’s] budget and the project was dropped. With the inclusion of the expansion in the Governor’s current budget, we once again raise the issue of racial equity which this proposal fails to address.

“We call on WisDOT to develop an alternative that rebuilds the highway without adding lanes and provides benefits to lower income communities of color equal to the benefit that will be provided to affluent white communities who will take advantage of increased ease in access to Milwaukee jobs, entertainment, recreation and other valuable City resources. And we call for that same racial equity in terms of the many jobs that will be created and access to transit alternatives for those without cars.”

Joining MICAH in opposing the revived expansion plan are WISPIRG, a public-interest group, and two groups concerned about the project’s effects on the environment, 1,000 Friends of Wisconsin and the Sierra Club — Wisconsin Chapter. All of the groups advocate a reconstruction plan that would not widen the highway’s footprint and include more transit options for the largely Black neighborhoods through which I-94 runs. (Dyer’s budget as presented includes an additional $3.5 million in transit operating assistance, but the widening project carries a $1 billion price tag.) The groups also call for the state to conduct a comprehensive environmental impact review of the options for rebuilding I-94.

Meanwhile, the Philadelphia-based political action committee 5th Square and other advocacy groups across Pennsylvania have put highway widening proposals statewide in their crosshairs, according to an article in the Pittsburgh CityPaper. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) has said it will need $15 billion a year to keep the state’s roads and bridges up to snuff, but current funding sources will provide only $6.9 billion. A fight is now brewing in Harrisburg over how to raise the rest of the money, but the advocates question whether all that $15 billion is really necessary. “Take those PennDOT estimates of their budget needs with a big bucket of salt,” 5th Square co-founder Jon Geeting said in a Tweet aimed at reporters covering transportation in Pennsylvania March 15. “There are all kinds of dubious highway and road capacity expansion projects included in those totals that are unnecessary and shouldn’t happen.” One of the most dubious of those projects: PennDOT’s plan to double the width of I-83 through Harrisburg, a $300 million project that the City of Harrisburg opposes and the advocacy group U.S. PIRG has called a “boondoggle.” PennDOT defends the project as necessary to upgrade a freeway that was poorly designed to begin with, but Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse said in 2019 that the widening would conflict with the city’s goals of reducing driving and traffic fatalities in the Pennsylvania capital.

And in Houston, the “advocacy group” fighting a freeway expansion project is Harris County itself. The Houston Chronicle reports that County Attorney Christian Menefee filed suit in U.S. District Court to force the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) to halt all development work on its planned $7 billion rebuilding of I-45 through Houston and completely redo its environmental impact review. The county argues that in drawing up its plans, TxDOT completely ignored the county’s expressed desire that the rebuilt highway remain within its current footprint and that it include ways to improve transit and reconnect local streets.

“We cannot allow TxDOT to cut corners and fail to live up to their duty,” Menefee told the Chronicle. “Very early in the process they ruled out opportunities for no land expansion.”

And Harris County is not the only governmental body to place Jersey barriers in the path of the I-45 reconstruction plan. The Federal Highway Administration told TxDOT March 8 to “pause before initiating further contract solicitation” on the project while it investigates whether it followed Civil Rights-era rules on displacing minority families. The Chronicle reported last summer that the reconstruction project would affect more than 1,075 dwelling units, including hundreds of public housing units, and 340 businesses north of downtown in a largely Hispanic section of the city.

Boston Transit System Cuts Service After Recieiving COVID Assistance

This past Sunday, the MBTA implemented a round of service cuts that reduced the frequency of Green, Orange and Red Line trains by 20 percent, cut frequency 5 percent on the Blue LIne, suspended service on some bus routes and consolidated several others.

The Boston Herald reported the Friday before the cuts took effect that the move drew criticism from some Boston-area transit-watchers.

The article quotes Julia Wallerce, Boston program manager at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, as saying the cuts were ill-advised because essential frontline workers would rely on the T more as businesses started to reopen as the COVID-19 pandemic eases. But what made them worse, she said, was this: “The particularly disturbing part is that it will have received about $2 billion in federal aid,” counting both $1.1 billion in federal assistance it has already received and another $900 million from the American Rescue Plan.

Wallerce also acknowledged that the T could really use the $21 million the cuts will save. “To be fair, the T does need every dollar it can get,” she told the Herald. “As a state, we don’t fund mass transit sufficiently. But the T is using relief money intended to fund service today and putting it for service tomorrow because it doesn’t know if it’ll have enough money in the future.”

A bill introduced in the Massachusetts Senate known as the “Transportation New Deal” aims to make sure it does. The proposal would raise the state gas tax by 12 cents over three years, slap a surcharge on Uber and Lyft riders who could have used the T to reach their destinations, and consider both charging a fee for using commercial parking lots and tolling highways that are currently free.

But for now, MBTA spokesperson Joe Pesaturo defended the cuts as necessary when the agency is facing annual operating deficits of $400 million. He also told the Herald in an email, “Through thoughtful service planning and proper management of the federal COVID relief assistance, the MBTA can keep itself on a sustainable path for the next two to three fiscal years. The MBTA will continue to carefully track ridership levels throughout the system, and if there is a need to restore service in certain areas, the T will have the ability to do that.”

Norfolk Nixes Bus System Redesign on Equity Grounds

In a move that the Virginian-Pilot called “a rarity” in its news report, the Norfolk City Council voted to reject Hampton Roads Transit’s (HRT) planned revamp of bus service in the city.

Or more accurately, the council’s Black members shot down the reorganization in a vote that split along racial lines.

The redesign, a year in the making, aimed to make bus service in the city faster and more efficient by eliminating some routes and replacing them with more direct routes that operated more frequently. But two City Council members, Mamie Johnson and Danica Royster, objected that residents weren’t given enough time to weigh in on how the plan would affect them. Furthermore, they argued, the plan was drawn up largely behind closed doors and failed to take into account how the changes might affect Norfolk’s Black and poorer residents.

“There being a belief that there is segregation in the city of Norfolk … the last thing we want to do is vote on something that we find out is actually not equitable and it further drove the divide between different areas,” Royster told the Virginian-Pilot.

Mayor Kenney Alexander and council member Paul Riddick voted with Johnson and Royster, resulting in a 4-4 tie vote that scuttled the plan.

Plan backers expressed surprise and some frustration over the vote. Council member Tommy Smigiel told the paper after the vote, “I’m kind of bothered this is being shot down on the night of the vote and there was no conversation about this sooner. I wasn’t aware at all that there were any concerns from my colleagues on council. Nobody reached out to me and said they were concerned.”

What made this vote unusual, the paper wrote, was the way the disagreements played out in public on a body that usually prefers to hash out differences in private.

Norfolk transit director Amy Inman took the defeat in stride, saying that the city and HRT would go back out to get more feedback from the public on the plan. “We did hear from the people, we did hear comments loud and clear, we did make the changes we needed to make, and now we need to go back out and revisit it with the public and make sure we’ve got it right,” she said in an interview last week. “That’s what public process is about. We’re not here to say we’ve got it 100% right.” A revised plan could be put before the council later this year, or it could be scrapped completely, depending on what the city hears from the public.

Know of a development that should be featured in this column? Send a Tweet with links to @MarketStEl using the hashtag #mobilecity.

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Next City contributor Sandy Smith is the home and real estate editor at Philadelphia magazine. Over the years, his work has appeared in Hidden City Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Inquirer and other local and regional publications. His interest in cities stretches back to his youth in Kansas City, and his career in journalism and media relations extends back that far as well.

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