Bureaucracy is the death of all sound work.
— Albert Einstein
Fair warning: I am about to say something that is blasphemous, at least in the rarefied keeps of those who plan and execute what passes for transportation policy in the state of Alabama, and those who have benefited for generations from the bedrock commitment of the bureaucrats who run our state to the notion that the only bad road is one that has yet to be built.
My blasphemy is this: Building roads does not relieve traffic congestion.
Having already consigned myself to the nether regions as conceived by the Alabama Department of Transportation, I feel no compunction about adding to it. Even hell, after all, can only get so hot, so I invite you to try this one on for size: Building roads does not relieve traffic congestion; in fact, it makes congestion worse.
Actually, of course, this is not blasphemy at all. It is merely common sense — which explains ALDOT’s aversion to it — backed by a little economic theory, a strong helping of social science, and the acquiescence, since roughly the early 1970s, of reputable urban planners and traffic engineers in all corners of the globe.
Let’s spend just a moment on the economic theory in play here. It’s called induced demand, and it basically holds that an increase in the supply of a given commodity results in increased demand for that commodity. As applied to automobile traffic, it means that when a given road becomes congested and is expanded, traffic will increase to meet and exceed the expanded capacity of the road. That principle has been proved true time and again in metropolitan areas across the country, from Los Angeles to Atlanta.
To state that in a way that is specifically meaningful to us here in Birmingham, adding lanes to Interstate 20/59 — as ALDOT is in the process of doing — will only increase the volume of traffic on the highway that effectively serves as the northern boundary of our central business district. And, if I may extrapolate from that, doing so under the pretense of easing traffic congestion is perpetuating a wrongheaded act with self-serving prevarication.
To be fair, ALDOT has indicated its expectation that the expanded 20/59 will reach capacity by 2035. But that only serves to highlight a question that has been on the minds of many in our community since the spring of 2013, when ALDOT unveiled its plans to expand the interstate — including replacing the downtown bridges and reconfiguring entry and exit ramps — and met with ongoing opposition from neighborhood and community groups, some of whom have called for rerouting 20/59 out of downtown altogether: Why spend $360 million on a “solution” that is going to be obsolete within, at best, 20 years of its completion, and probably a good deal sooner?
And what of the proposed solution? Over the past 18 months, ALDOT has continued to hold periodic community involvement meetings, and, in fact, has made some cosmetic changes to its original plan. But as of today, the bottom line remains unchanged: ALDOT ultimately will do what it wants, regardless of where the opposition comes from.
ALDOT gets away with this attitude in part because Alabama has been a roadbuilder’s paradise since the day the first asphalt was laid in our fair state. Indeed, that dispensation is written into our state’s constitution, that atavistic document that decrees that the revenues the state government derives from the taxes it imposes on the sale of gasoline may be used only to fund road and bridge projects — no mass transit, and no other program or initiative that would encourage the development of alternative forms of transportation and/or disincentives to automobile use. One has the impression that if an innovative thought found its way into the conversation at ALDOT, the very walls would crumble and a massive hole gape open in the floor to consume the offending party.
But perhaps all is not lost as it relates to 20/59. For one thing, ALDOT’s bridge replacement plan for downtown is being reviewed by the Federal Highway Administration, even as the department continues to hear concerns about the plan from citizens and businesses that will be impacted by it. For another, just last week, the FHA announced that the city of Birmingham has been awarded a $125,000 grant to study barriers to economic and community development presented by I-20/59.
What does this mean? In the immediate term, at least for opponents of the ALDOT plan in its current form, it is a potential game changer. If the study shows that the impacts will be negative — and/or suggests that moving the interstate would result in substantial long-term economic benefits — then it seems within the realm of possibility to think that the FHA would exercise some leverage with ALDOT to reconsider its plans, particularly if that leverage comes in the form of a study funded by the FHA itself.
Admittedly, we don’t know at this point what the results of the study will be. It’s possible that an independent examination will show that the benefits of the ALDOT plan outweigh its negative impacts. Regardless, both ALDOT and opponents of its plans for 20/59 should be prepared to embrace the results and move forward.
Beyond the ultimate fate of 20/59, there are other ways — besides getting ourselves a new Alabama Constitution, which is a subject for another day — that we in Birmingham can work to diminish ALDOT’s undue influence on the ability of our community to chart its own course in economic development, transportation and otherwise meeting the needs of its citizens. Most notably, we can agitate for better mass transit, but that’s another tough row to hoe, especially in the face of the lack of leadership on that issue from the current occupants of City Hall and the Alabama Legislature.
The thing that, it seems to me, we can do most immediately is to embrace, promote and utilize alternative forms of transportation, such as biking and walking. We should take advantage of walking trails, call for continued expansion of bicycle lanes, support the expeditious development of the countywide trail system — the Red Rock Ridge and Valley system — that is designed to make our community more “walkable” and “bikeable” in general, but also to enhance access to mass transit, educational and health facilities, cultural and recreational options, and retail and commercial centers.
We are fortunate to be living in Birmingham at a time when so many opportunities are open to us. The real blasphemy would be failing to take advantage of each and every one of them.