Costs of the Coming Road Boom

Clinton is signing the biggest road-building bill in history. But local smog problems may hold back the tar and concrete.

President Clinton is set to sign a transportation bill today that will put almost as much money into road building as the gross domestic product of Egypt - $162 billion.

Indeed, Mr. Clinton's signature will set off a Pyramid-sized construction boom that will start jackhammers thumping and graders rolling as crews improve America's roads for the burgeoning numbers of sport-utility vehicles and sedans.

Yet behind the asphalt euphoria is a growing debate over the environmental impact of of more road construction. While supporters see more jobs and smoother-flowing highways, critics see more cars and thus more smog. They would rather see the money spent on mass transit and other alternatives.

It's an issue that will be argued in statehouses and county courthouses in coming months as officials decide how to spend their windfall. Complicating the debate is the fact that Washington is boosting road spending by 30 percent, while sticking to tough air-quality standards. Already, the tension is surfacing across the country:

* Atlanta, for instance, plans to build a 211-mile, $2.5 billion beltway - despite big smog troubles. The city's air quality is so poor that regulators have banned construction of new roads in the Atlanta area. In fact, environmentalists see hope in the fact that cities like Atlanta may have to spend some of their road budget on mass transit.

* In New York, officials are grappling with a 14-mile stretch of busy highway in suburban Westchester County. Citing concerns over sprawl and more traffic, environmentalists recently blocked plans for a federally funded, $365 million high-occupancy-vehicle lane. But their hopes of a light-rail system along the stretch seem a faint dream.

* Many in Denver - famous for its brown cloud - want to build an outer beltway in the area between eastern Denver and the new airport. But others want to boost commuter rail and bus service.

Environmentalists watching

A few environmentalists say the bill - the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) - is a big defeat. They say the highway-funding increase - 30 percent from the last law - overwhelms the $36 billion mass-transit budget.

But most leading environmentalists disagree. The key, they say, will be close oversight of transportation decisions, especially in the South, the region with the greatest funding increase and the smallest historical commitment to mass transit.

The law will lead to "more sprawl-inducing projects" but also "some good projects," says Michael Replogle, federal transportation director for the Environmental Defense Fund. And given the political realities of the GOP-led Congress, Mr. Replogle notes environmentalists scored a victory in avoiding a rollback of the 1991 transit law. They hope next time around Congress will boost anti-sprawl provisions. The 1991 law cut some incentives for marginally important highway projects. And it provided unprecedented freedom for states to finance mass transit. The law funded a new air-quality program as well as bike paths, historic preservation, and other alternatives to roads.

It also required local planning committees to consider land use before giving the go-ahead to transportation projects. This has allowed environmentalists more say.

Portland, Ore., for instance, requires its neighborhoods to conform to a regional design to ensure "livable communities," which focus development around town centers and ban new malls and homes that are accessible only by car.

This year, the House of Representatives, led by Transportation Committee chairman Rep. Bud Shuster (R) of Pennsylvania, sought to scale back or repeal these reforms. "Highways don't create traffic. Traffic creates the need for highways," Representative Shuster said recently. But Shuster ultimately relented.

Atlanta losing pavement passion?

This summer in 'Hotlanta,' cool breezes have already given way to thick swampy humidity, and a smoggy, musty haze. The city has already had four "bad air" days. Such pollution is eating away at the autocentrism this city and region are famous for. Also, because of the smog problem, the Federal Highway Administration has barred Georgia from paving any new roads in the 13 counties that surround Atlanta.

Even state transportation officials, renowned for their zeal to pave pavement, are starting to tout mass transit as a long-term solution. Currently, Atlanta residents drive an average of 34 miles per day, the most in the nation. Most suburbs lack commuter rail, and the light-rail system serves just two counties near downtown.

"There will be a lot greater investment in transit and commuter rail and suburban transit systems," says George Boulineau, director of planning at Georgia's Department of Transportation.

Environmentalists say this is only lip service. They point to the outer-loop plan, which could end up costing $5 billion.

But Mr. Boulineau sees the beltway of the future, using an array of high-tech bells and whistles. Cars would float along, with computers in charge, allowing drivers to forgo the wheel for CNN. A 24-hour real-time picture of road activity would be available on the Internet. The road would be integrated into a sensible land-use pattern. "It's going to require us to look at a roadway in a totally different way," he says.

But Boulineau's enthusiasm is not shared by Jim Chapman, executive director of Georgians for Transportation Alternatives. A road is still a road, he says.

"We're in a brand new period," he adds. "To me, that road is kind of a poster child of what we should be moving away from."

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