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Rogue columnist

Paving Arizona: Constant highway expansion drives urban sprawl

Seattle recently completed demolition of the double-deck 1950s-era Alaskan Way Viaduct, which ran for more than 2 miles along the waterfront downtown. Now the traffic is in a tunnel and the city is preparing to enjoy unencumbered access to Elliott Bay. An even more ambitious goal is to put a long lid on Interstate 5 downtown, which is already covered by a park for a few blocks.

Meanwhile, in Southern California, the $8 billion, 63-mile High Desert Corridor freeway has been canceled. It would have been the first new freeway in LA County in a quarter century. According to Streetsblog, the project "would have spanned two counties connecting the north L.A. County cities of Palmdale and Lancaster with San Bernardino County cities of Victorville, Apple Valley, and Adelanto. The route would have gone through a patchwork of privately-owned undeveloped wild lands populated by Joshua Trees." The PIRG Education Fund named it one of the worst highway boondoggles in the nation.

But that's not how we roll in central Arizona. In addition to the unneeded South Mountain Freeway (pictured above), the state Department of Transportation is planning a 55-mile freeway running from Apache Junction to Eloy. There it would connect with Interstate 10. When in a hole, keep digging.

According to the PIRG report:

Highway expansion costs billions, driving agencies further into debt, while failing to address our long-term transportation challenges.

Expansions are expensive.

  • In 2012 (the latest year for which data is available) federal, state and local governments spent $27.2 billion on highway-expansion projects – sucking money from road repair, transit, and other needs.
  • From 2008 to 2015, highway debt nearly doubled, from $111 billion to $217 billion.
  • New roadway is costly to maintain. The average lane mile costs $24,000 per year to keep in good repair.2

Expansion doesn't solve congestion.

  • Expanding a highway sets off decisions that can lead to the highway becoming congested again. Since 1980, the nation has added more than 800,000 lane-miles of highway – paving more than 1,500 square miles – yet congestion is worse than in the early 1980s.

Expansion damages the environment and our communities.

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  • Highway expansion fuels more driving and climate change. In 2017, transportation was America's number-one source of global-warming pollution.

Highway expansion can also force the relocation of homes and businesses, widening "dead zones" alongside highways, severing street connections for pedestrians and cars, and reducing the tax base.

We've lived through all this in central Arizona. And yet, the state's transportation policy remains entirely focused on this mid-twentieth-century method. In addition to the externality costs of sprawl — wasteful infrastructure, lost farmland and pristine desert, and increased air pollution — six of the ten worst cities for smog in the nation are in metro Phoenix — we now confront human-caused climate change, driven by vehicle emissions.

No wonder the advocacy group Transportation for America calls for no funding for new or expanded highways. We need to be spending on rail transit, expanding Amtrak, and building high-speed rail like every other advanced urbanized nation on earth. We need to limit driving, especially long distances in single-occupancy vehicles.

Why is Arizona continuing down this, er, road? The simple answer is that the various interests I call the Real Estate Industrial Complex depend upon constant highway building and expansion to make otherwise useless land valuable for the Ponzi scheme of continued sprawl. The poster child for this low-quality mess is Hunt Highway in Pinal County, where supervisors recently approved a new subdivision even though the privately run sewer "system" is a disaster. The petty fees raked in by localities are nowhere near enough to cover the infrastructure costs, much less the externalities.

The Real Estate Industrial Complex controls political power. It even controls the language used in the media. E.g., massive sprawl subdivisions and shopping strips are "master planned communities." Gated properties are "gated communities." Houses are "homes."

Thanks to the Big Sort, a majority average Arizonans wouldn't have it any other way. Driving a hundred miles a day to accomplish what I can do within six blocks in downtown Seattle is not merely "normal," it's a God-given right.

God help us.

Jon Talton is a fourth-generation Arizonan who runs the blog Rogue Columnist. He is a former op-ed and business columnist of the Arizona Republic, and retired as the economics columnist of the Seattle Times in 2019. Talton is also the author of 12 novels, including the David Mapstone Mysteries, which are set in Arizona.

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