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Campaign Hot Take: Stop the Highway Building Beast

By Andrew Kidde

For over a year, the Washington State legislature has been struggling to pass a new multi-year transportation revenue and spending package. Big differences between the House and Senate versions led to impasse last session, and a group of 8 Democratic legislators — tasked with reconciling the differences — failed to reach agreement in time for a possible special session in November. We hear they are still negotiating, presumably with the view of passing a package in 2022.

The legislation’s impact on climate and air pollution is enormous. Throughout the negotiations, the House versions of the package have included a lot more funding for transit and walking and biking infrastructure than the Senate versions—so that’s a step forward. Yet most of the packages have included substantial expansion of highway capacity.

This is where we need to say it’s time to stop building new highways.

Why? Though most people don’t think of them this way, highways are as much a part of the fossil fuel system as the pipelines that carry oil and gas to market. Our 8.3 million lane-miles of roadway, continuously built and expanded over the last century, enable over three trillion miles of vehicle travelper year. That’s a lot of pollution. In fact, transportation is the biggest single contributor to climate pollution in the US, and it brings toxic air pollution to many neighborhoods, particularly poor and BIPOC communities. Not only do highways enable a vast amount of driving——in many places, getting from A to B on a highway requires driving and polluting, because we have not invested in clean ways of getting around, like transit and safe infrastructure for walking, biking, and rolling.

EV’s are part of the solution, but they are by no means pollution-free; tires, for example, are a huge problem

We have so many miles of highways that repair has become a huge financial burden, and backlogs of deferred maintenance in states across the country have become legendary. Traffic congestion is endemic —  we never seem to have enough capacity — so we keep making more roads and widening the ones we have, even as we fail to maintain the old ones. It would seem that widening a highway would alleviate congestion, but our history shows that a year or two after expansion projects, traffic jams return as more and more cars appear. This phenomenon is so well known that traffic engineers have a term for it, they call it “induced demand.” Adding capacity adds car trips, which adds to climate pollution, and chokes communities with air pollution and asthma cases.

So what’s the future of this system? When do we stop expanding it? When will we start investing in a sustainable transportation system that can move people efficiently and affordably?

There never seems to be a good time to stop expanding highways because there is always a new location of congestion where the local community clamors for relief — and highway expansion projects take decades of planning, engineering, and construction, and projects are further split into physical segments. Few politicians want to pull the plug on a project that is half-complete, or has received millions in engineering and permitting funds.

The truth is that the best time to stop highway expansion is right now…because highway pollution is our biggest source of climate pollution; because highway pollution is choking our communities with asthma; because we never will, and never can, solve the congestion problem; because highways are dangerous and deadly; and because we need the money that would go into highway expansion to instead build a safe, affordable, sustainable transportation system based on transit, walking, biking, and rolling.

350 Seattle is busy taking on the highway building beast! We have joined Front and Centered, Disability Rights Washington, and Transit Riders Union in our  Just Transition in Transportation Campaign. We have organized statewide through 350 Washington, and now have 9 chapters around the state joining the coalition. We’ve collaborated with the Rocky Mountain Institute on a Highway Pollution Calculator which can estimate the amount of climate pollution a highway expansion project will create. We’ll also be presenting at the next 350 Seattle general meeting on November 3rd. And we’re hosting a screening the film Ramps to Nowhere, about how an intersectional group of activists stopped the HR Thompson highway from going through the Central District in the 1970s (details will be provided here soon). Our volunteers are busy meeting with legislators to talk about highways and climate. Our policy and research committee members are learning how to use the highway pollution calculator, and are identifying the many highway expansion projects that are being proposed around the state.

Join us, and fight for a Just Transition in Transportation! And meanwhile….tell your legislator to stop highway expansion and invest in a green and equitable transportation future! And fill out our volunteer engagement form

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