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Stop Sprawl
Sprawl Costs Us All

Roads and Highways

Roads lead to sprawl and sprawling development leads to more driving. New roads rarely relieve congestion and in many cases actually make things worse. Yet, every year, federal and state governments give away billions of dollars to build new highways. The good news is that there are proven solutions to breaking this vicious cycle. Many states are learning that investing in public transportation eases traffic, improves air and water quality, and is more cost-effective than building new roads.

Seeing Red

Ever been stuck in traffic and wondered: "Where are all these people going?" The answer is "everywhere." While people once had many ways to travel using public transportation, over the past 50 years we have built a car-only culture. Shopping malls, big-box retailers-even our homes, offices and schools-are too frequently cut off from sidewalks and transit by high-speed access roads and acres of parking. This makes taking public transportation inconvenient and walking or biking dangerous or impossible. Driving is, in many cases, the only option.

And according to recent studies, driving is exactly what we're doing. In 1998, Americans drove a staggering 2.6 trillion miles (1) --that's the equivalent of driving to Mars and back almost 10,000 times. We now drive well over three times as many miles per capita as we did in 1960. (2) Not surprisingly, sprawl is the major culprit. The Surface Transportation Policy Project (STPP) recently calculated that from 1983 to 1990, almost 70 percent of the increase in driving was due to the impacts of sprawl. This is common sense: Sprawling development forces us to drive more frequently and make longer trips.

Sprawl also forces us to spend more time stuck in traffic. Time lost and fuel burned while stuck in traffic cost us tens of billions of dollars a year. In the birthplace of sprawl-Los Angeles-traffic delays are estimated to cost residents a whopping $12 billion a year. (3) Other metro areas like Washington, D.C., and the San Francisco Bay Area aren't far behind.

Federal Spending on TransportationThe natural response to being stuck in traffic all the time is to want to build more roads. Unfortun-ately, building new roads and adding new lanes to existing roads actually encourages more people to drive and opens new areas to sprawl. (4) The STPP and other researchers have found that for every increase in our highway network, half of the new capacity is taken up by "induced demand" -that is, traffic drawn to the road because it's there. Building new roads and adding more lanes draws people who otherwise would not have driven onto the roads. Combined with the delays created by construction and the time it takes to complete a major project, roadbuilding provides almost no relief from traffic delays. (5) And it's incredibly expensive.

New highways usually cost tens of millions of dollars per mile. Yet, despite the sticker shock, states just love building them. Why? One reason is that the federal government gives away billions of dollars to build new highways. "TEA-21" -- the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century-sets out federal transportation spending for six years. Signed into law in June of 1998, it authorizes an eye-popping $173.1 billion for highways but sets aside only $41 billion for public transportation projects. In other words, we plan to spend well over four times as much on highways as on public transit.

Legacy Highway, Utah: $2.76 billion

A perfect example of an unneeded highway fueled by federal cash can be found in Utah. Gov. Mike Leavitt is pushing to build a 120-mile loop that would parallel an existing interstate, destroy critical wildlife habitat and open rural areas to sprawl.

Despite the redundant route, staggering price and serious environmental effects, Gov. Leavitt is pushing forward. The first section, through Davis County, will run right next to the eastern shore of the Great Salt Lake. This area is internationally recognized as one the most valuable shorebird and waterfowl breeding and migration areas in the Western Hemisphere. Millions of birds stop over to rest and feed during their annual migrations. Right next door lies critical habitat where bald eagles nest, red foxes hunt and mule deer graze. (6) Though a new route that gives wider berth to the area has been proposed, the project would still represent the largest-ever highway intrusion into a wetlands in the western United States. (7)

Another major problem in the Salt Lake City region is the choking smog that periodically blankets the city and its surroundings. Blessed with a stunning mountain range-the Wasatch Front-the area is also cursed with weather inversions that trap polluted air against the peaks. Adding another 6 lanes, as Gov. Leavitt is proposing with the Legacy Highway, will just make things worse.

Regardless of whether Legacy is built, Salt Lake City will be adding more cars to the road. In preparation for the 2002 Winter Olympics, Interstate-15, which parallels Legacy's proposed route, is slated to be widened from 6 lanes to 12.

Proponents of the Legacy Highway point to the geography and culture of the region and argue that roads are the only answer. However, the recently built TRAX light rail system (which has exceeded its ridership goals by 40 percent) is proof positive that transit can work-even in Utah.

Despite the fact that a new freeway will only make traffic worse, and despite all the environmental problems that the road will cause, the most shocking thing about Legacy is its high price. The entire loop has a projected price tag of $2.76 billion. The first 12 miles will cost an estimated $374 million-or $31 million per mile. Of course, the governor of Utah isn't really concerned-like most highway projects, at least half of the cost will be picked up by Uncle Sam.

Grand Parkway, Texas: $2 Billion

Houston is already ringed by three huge beltways and each one has only made traffic worse. But despite all the roads and all the traffic, state transportation officials are pushing on with the proposed development of the Grand Parkway.

The new beltway's proposed 177-mile route will destroy key habitat, open rural areas to sprawl and worsen the dirtiest air in the nation. The Parkway will slice through fragile open spaces including Lake Houston State Park, Brazos Bend State Park and the Katy Prairie. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service states that the Grand Parkway will result in "tremendous secondary impacts" because it will open rural areas to more sprawl. (8)

The Grand Parkway will also surely make Houston's dirty air-now the most toxic in the nation-even worse. And, instead of U.S. taxpayers splitting the cost 50-50 with the state, the federal government has agreed to pay 90 percent of the projected $2 billion cost. That's a cool $1.8 billion out of our wallets.

Woodrow Wilson Bridge, District of Columbia: $2.1 billion

The West and South aren't the only places threatened with sprawl-creating boondoggles. Right near the nation's capital, the Federal Highway Administration is finalizing plans for an incredibly expensive 12-lane drawbridge to replace the Woodrow Wilson Bridge over the Potomac River.

This design is plagued with problems. As often happens, many homes would have to be leveled to accommodate the new lanes. And, due to the magnetic effect of expanding roads, the additional capacity created is projected to be used up by the time the bridge is finished. In addition, the new bridge makes it difficult to add Metro trains or other public transportation to the crossing.

Building a tunnel under the Potomac is a much better idea. Not only would a tunnel cost up to a billion dollars less than the drawbridge, it would be able to immediately accommodate the public transportation that the region so desperately needs. A rail link across the Potomac could move 100,000 commuters per day and reduce traffic and pollution while revitalizing communities like Oxon Hill in Maryland.

Transportation is both a key cause of sprawl and a potential cure -- depending on how we spend our money. The funding and construction of freeways is a huge, hidden sprawl subsidy that is all too often an excuse to build new roads instead of an authentic response to our transportation needs.

Breaking this vicious cycle is easy: all we have to do is spend more on public transportation and less on new roads. In a country like ours, roads will always have their place. But, by investing more in public transportation, we will give people a choice in how they travel-clearing the air, preserving key habitat and freeing us from the traffic trap we have created.

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