by Whit Gibbons

March 8, 2009

Imagine how absurd it would be if someone proposed a project that would destroy 1 percent of the country's land area. In those areas, trees could not grow; wetlands could not support aquatic plants and animals; and wildlife entering the area could be killed instantly. Actually we have already done this--by crisscrossing the country with highways.

Our nation's roads now constitute more than 36,000 square miles, which is equivalent to a parking lot the size of South Carolina with enough asphalt and concrete left over to pave most of Connecticut. This is a staggering level of wildlife-unfriendly habitat that results in some of the most devastating environmental impacts in our country today.

Why mention this now? With billions of stimulus dollars directed to the Department of Transportation and various state programs, a valid concern is that some states will try to build new roads. Using the funds to repair old roads, guarantee structural integrity of bridges, and complete projects already in progress is reasonable. But a decision to add new roads should be part of a carefully considered process.

Americans are accustomed to travel where and when they want to and often assume that any limitation on roadway building will somehow violate their freedom. No one is proposing that we not maintain our excellent interstate system, the state highways connecting major cities, or the farm-to-market county roads. But we should long ago have established strictly enforced guidelines requiring strong justification for any new road. Among the supporting documentation should be a clear statement of how much tax money each individual will pay to build the road and what our environmental losses will be.

Consider the environmental impacts of new highways through the country's remaining forest habitats. Aside from the outright destruction of woodlands when trees are replaced with asphalt or concrete, environmental disruption is rampant. Stream flow is affected when a highway crosses a valley. Small, productive wetlands are sometimes destroyed. An even more insidious impact is that highways fragment the habitats where animals live, resulting in daily deaths of amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and even birds.

Count the dead animals you see along a highway, new or old. For every dead raccoon, possum, or fox that is readily visible, hundreds of smaller dead animals will go unnoticed by most people. Every new highway ensures that millions more will be killed.

People like new roads because of the perceived convenience. Shortcuts that actually trim a two-hour trip to one hour for many people in a region may be justifiable. But when a multimillion-dollar construction project benefits only a handful of people by making a shortcut that saves them only minutes over the course of a year, shouldn't we challenge it? We should also think about the inconveniences of a new road for other citizens. Traffic congestion in a formerly quiet and peaceful community does not constitute convenience. And some new roads open up opportunities for disorganized urban sprawl that may be convenient for those few who profit, but no one else.

One lame argument given for building more highways is that doing so "creates jobs in the community." And who do you suppose is paying the people who have those jobs? You are, as a taxpayer. If we want to use tax money to create jobs, let's use it to restore natural habitats, hire more park rangers, develop more wildlife preserves, or make existing roads less environmentally hazardous to wildlife.

The reasons for not building more roads are many, but some I find particularly compelling are from a report titled "Beyond Asphalt: Creating a Better Transportation Future for Virginia" published by the Southern Environmental Law Center. "More roads tend to bring more drivers, more scattered development, more traffic jams, more taxes to provide services to new development, more destruction of our countryside, and more air and water pollution." Why would we want even one of these things, much less the whole package? Let's use the road stimulus funds to make necessary repairs to the roads and bridges we already have, not to increase traffic jams, taxes, environmental destruction, and pollution.

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