Zombie Highways Attack!

Danielle Zimmerman takes a close look at an unforeseen consequence of the Appalachian Development Act: miles and miles of underused roads.

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They’re being called “Zombie Highways” — at least by environmental lawyer David Burwell. It’s a term he uses to describe the seemingly never-ending stagger onward of the Appalachian Development Highway System (ADHS), an incentive for states in the Appalachian region to build as many interstate highways as they can, at the most expensive cost, since the federal government is bound by the Appalachian Development Act of 1965 to provide $4 dollars for every $1 dollar spent by the state.

While the ADHS was meant to help spur economic development in rural areas by creating approximately 2,300 miles in highway across nine states, the project has now grown to over 3,000 miles spanning thirteen states. Many people view the overgrowth as the cause of decline in inner cities and a poor allocation of money, since many of the roads end up being underused.

A recent report on Blueprint America for the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, hones in on a specific six-lane interstate highway projected for Jefferson County’s Northern Beltline, encircling Birmingham, Alabama. The highway, which is slated for completion in 2025, is receiving criticism from locals — as well as Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford.

“We have built enough interstates to kill our inner-cities.” Langford said in the video interview with Blueprint America correspondent Rick Karr. “Yes, we can get from point A to point B but now what we are doing is cycling traffic around because of the grandiose idea that ‘we need more interstates.’ No, we don’t need more interstates — we need high-speed public transportation. But we’re always spending our money in the wrong places.”

Modern planners see highways as a thing of the past, considering that in many places they have been detrimental to the development of cities by creating vast regions of sprawl. So why bother building more?

“It’s an entirely political process.” said David Burwell on Blueprint America. “No one wants to turn off that federal spigot of money.”

Birmingham real estate developer Cathy Crenshaw imagines how a project like the ADHS could be reevaluated to actually meet the public demand. “It would be pretty wonderful if we could shift some of these dollars for larger projects back into cities. The question is, how do we build neighborhoods that we want to live in and want to walk around in and know people? That requires investment. So, I would much rather, personally, see investment in public transportation, which is much less expensive than a new highway system.”

This would be incredible to see, but also not terribly hard to imagine especially since Congress is in the process of reshaping its transportation policy with “transit equity“ in mind. Perhaps, we will live to see the day when “road to nowhere” projects are a thing of the past.
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Tags: infrastructurebirmingham

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