Thursday, January 22, 2009

Retrofitting the Highways

The interstate and highway system has gotten a lot of attention the past few months leading up to our new president taking office. The infrastructure is in place, but how do we maximize it's use? Karrie Jacobs over at Metropolis Mag has a few good ideas:

But it’s time for us to look at the interstate system not as an aging network of highways in need of repair or replacement but instead as we might look at a navigable river. Congressman Earl Blumenauer, of Portland, Oregon, a noted infrastructure advocate, says the system represents “a tremendous national untapped resource.” It encompasses a lot of land. Funds were appropriated at the outset for the purchase of two million acres; according to one estimate, the system actually takes up 40 acres per mile, or 1.87 million acres. But what if we could make those highways beautiful, not by removing bill­boards, as Lady Bird Johnson did in the 1960s, but by using the corridors for more than moving cars and trucks? What if we thought of them as the backbone of a new, more diverse 21st-century transportation system? “It’s time for a different vision,” Blumenauer says. “And a principle for that is how we coax more out of existing resources.”

This is not a radical idea. Obviously, the interstate, with its generous rights-of-way, is a prime spot for new rail lines, both high-speed intercity trains and commuter rail. In the Bay Area, BART trains to outlying suburbs often run in the median strip. The same is true in Chicago and Blumenauer’s Portland. There are similar plans all over the country, including one for a Midwest system that would use high-speed trains and commuter rail to link major cities in nine states; and a scheme in Colorado to run high-speed rail along I-25 and I-70. The recently opened New Mexico Rail Runner connects Santa Fe and Albuquerque along an interstate corridor. It makes sense that rail would go where the people are, and over the last half century, people have settled along highways. But while there are many regional rail projects around the country, there is no national plan. As Shelley Poticha, president and CEO of Reconnecting America, a transit-advocacy group, points out, “One thing that would need to change is we would have to ask the federal government to think in an integrated, interdisciplinary way.” In layman’s terms: the highway planners and the rail planners would have to be in the same room.
Having lived in Chicago, the Bay Area, and NYC I am always thinking why do we have 6-8 lanes of bumper to bumper traffic instead of BRT, LRT, and commuter rail running along these main arteries. Now, living in the Twin Cities I see that we need to really rethink the use of the highways and move beyond seeing them as infrastructure that moves cars. We need to better integrate them into the urban fabric and make them multi-modal tools that can supplement private automobile use and public transit. Wouldn't it be great to head over to 94 and have numerous options on how to utilize it. Just maybe someone has a complete streets concept for our major highways.

1 comment:

Snak Shak said...

Co-location with interstate highways seems like a great idea, but when we have tried that with pipelines the ability to get an additional easement grant within federal ROW is virtually nil. This would take some executive level persuasion in order to get the Federal Highway Administration off go, but I really hope that happens because I agree that there are opportunities here. Medians are generally bad, however, because often stormwater control facilities are lurking in the middle.