Viewpoint: Are we building highways to oblivion?

Most Americans remain in denial or only somewhat aware of the reality of peak oil, climate change and the fiction of unlimited growth. Government is doing little to dispel those notions.

While the fact of finite resources is immutable, the politicians plan to build more and bigger roads, pledging hundreds of billions of dollars to expanding the interstate highway network.

These massive road plans assume unlimited cheap oil, a condition that is already past. That is a trillion-dollar error that can co-opt the future of our post-carbon society.

The public is focused on and concerned about $3-a-gallon gasoline, but that fixation has not resulted in any significant change in public policy. There is no political pressure to tax windfall profits, create inter-city rail networks, install solar panels on homes or to take other steps to alleviate the constriction of supplies of fossil fuels.

Instead, we are promoting more suburban sprawl, more roads and more overdevelopment all dependent on cheap gasoline. An effective response to dwindling supplies of oil will take cooperative efforts from the local level all the way to the global level.

What if someone suggested you dig up that prize bluegrass lawn and plant lettuce, radishes, onions and other food crops? How about if government decided to plow up the golf courses to plant corn and other crops?

That’s not as nutty as it sounds. Food will be one of the primary issues of the peak oil period, particularly for large cities that are some distance from farmlands. In the not-too-distant future, those big trucks may not be rolling in at your local supermarket, and the shelves may be rather bare.

We need a new transportation policy. Highway construction, which is a key part of our car culture economy, links real estate speculators, developers, road construction firms, sand and gravel mining companies, and lending institutions. Not surprisingly, in most places, these people are the bankrollers of local politicians, who make the zoning and planning decisions about building new highways and the associated development.

Considering the many campaign donations by developers, take a look at the local County Board. How many members are in the real estate or legal professions or have ties to developers?

Witness the strong political pressure to extend Perryville Road. Drive those cars.

Witness the Sunil Puri/Dyn Cannell, LLC’s request for a special-use permit to pursue a 123-acre subdivision in Rockton township—right next to the Nygren Wetland Preserve (See related stories on page A1, A5 and B5). Beloit dumped sludge containing heavy metals in the 1980s on the very land for this “Planned Community Development.” Drive those cars.

Witness the huge subdivision that is being foisted on the Village of Caledonia under questionable circumstances. Drive those cars.

Witness the costs and taxes Loves Park is trying to foist upon Rockford and farmers for the extension of Riverside Boulevard. Drive those cars.

Witness what happened to the Ditzlers, their wetlands and a Native American historical site for the Springfield-Harrison extension at the hands of the County Board. Drive those cars.

In the 1950s, the country built the interstate highway system, inspired by Hitler’s Autobahn network in Nazi Germany. That development largely happened because of a conspiracy among General Motors, Firestone Tire and Standard Oil to eradicate public transit systems in more than 100 cities. If you doubt that, go on the Internet and punch in “streetcar conspiracy” and see what comes up. There are numerous articles documenting these events.

Now, we are trying to rectify that mistake. We are spending billions on new light rail and streetcar networks in cities across the country. Rockford and Winnebago County are trying to obtain rail service for this area. Had we left the rails in place, we would not be as dependent on cars and trucks today, and dealing with peak oil would be much easier. Rail transport is much more fuel efficient than automobiles.

The interstate highways soon created huge areas of auto-dependent suburbs, which ringed the inner cities with development, leaving the core of the city largely neglected. In a speech in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. said: “These 40 million [poor] people are invisible because America is so affluent, so rich; because our expressways carry us away from the ghetto, we don’t see the poor.”

A number of cities, including Chicago, have had campaigns to stop the construction of highways. Freeway opposition was common in the 1960s, and few new roadways were proposed.

But a resurgence of such plans occurred in the 1990s, with several upgrades of the interstate system, proposed to aid in implementing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). These plans called for new and expanded north-south truck routes to expedite traffic between Canada and Mexico, plus many other projects to benefit the highway lobby, big companies like Wal-Mart, and ever-growing suburban sprawl. That was President George H. Bush’s highway law.

Mark Rabinowitz of, said laws were added to expand the program during the Bill Clinton administration and now in the second George W. Bush administration. The public, he said, has paid little attention, even the very groups that do not want more roads.

He notes many environmental groups were fooled into focusing on proposed bike paths to accompany these highways while ignoring the majority of the funding was going for the roads. A Washington, D.C.-area bicycle group, for example, is urging its members to demand inclusion of a bicycle path with the $3 billion Inter County Connector superhighway in Maryland. This flies in the face of other environmental groups there who have spent years fighting this highly destructive project.

Hopefully, the Larry Morrissey administration’s good move of planning to connect the area’s disconnected bike paths and putting bike lanes on some streets will not take the same route as Maryland’s debacle.

In Portland, Ore. Interstate 84 carries six lanes of freeway traffic plus a light rail line. The traffic on the roadway, Rabinowitz said, is helping to melt the polar ice caps. but commuters have transportation options. The electricity to run the train is provided by a mix of coal, natural gas, hydropower, nuclear power and wind.

We need a strong environmental challenge to centralized energy conglomerates’ plans to revive nuclear power, “clean” coal, oil drilling in wilderness areas and turning farmland and forests into production of biofuels. These things are unlikely to stop until we explode the myth that we can have unlimited, endless growth in a finite world.

Sustainability refers to practices that can be continued generation after generation. We have a long way to go. Walk. Bike. Buy hybrid and E-85 vehicles. Live close to work or in the central city, and fight development that robs us of our nature and farmland. Don’t drive those cars.

Editor and Publisher Frank Schier contributed to this editorial.

From the May 31-June 6, 2006, issue

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