As suburbs grow, politicians and city planners often promote new highways as a way to ease congestion and encourage more economic growth. Rebecca Williams reports on the struggle between local officials who want to encourage that growth and people who worry a new highway will fuel more sprawl:
As suburbs grow, politicians and city planners often promote new highways as
a way to ease congestion and encourage more economic growth. Rebecca
Williams reports on the struggle between local officials who want to
encourage that growth and people who worry a new highway will fuel more
The Census Bureau says commutes to work are getting longer in the nation’s
biggest cities. Demographers say that’s because people are moving
out farther and farther from their jobs in search of more house for the
money or a quieter way of life. More people moving out to the fringes of the suburbs
means more pressure on two-lane roads and more congestion.
New highways are one of the tools local officials reach for when traffic
gets worse. People living in the fast-growing suburbs west of Chicago have
been debating a proposed new highway nicknamed the Prairie Parkway. The
four-lane beltway would connect these outer suburbs.
Jan Carlson is the Transportation Commissioner for Kane County, about 40
miles from downtown Chicago. He’s been looking forward to the beltway since
plans were unveiled five years ago:
“If you listen to the complaints, as I do, of people stuck in traffic and if
you consider the many economic advantages that moving that traffic brings to
us, it appears to me that the greater good is to move forward with the
Carlson says he knows new highways can rapidly speed up development in an
area, but he points to census data that show his county and others nearby
are already among the fastest-growing in the nation without a new highway:
“I am not one of those who subscribes to the theory that if you don’t build
it, they will not come.”
Jan Carlson says the new highway will make the local economy stronger,
bringing in much needed jobs to the suburbs, but many people are strongly opposed to the
beltway. Marvel Davis lives on a farm that’s been in her family for 170 years. Some of
her farmland lies within a corridor that the state has set aside for the proposed beltway.
“I tell people that’s the way sprawl happens. You think, well I’ve lost
that field to the farm, so the first guy that comes along and offers you
$50,000 an acre, your temptation is going to be pretty great, isn’t it?”
Davis says even though construction on the beltway isn’t expected to begin
until 2009, she’s seen a lot of new buildings spring up. She says it’s true
the area’s already growing, but she thinks the prospect of a new highway
might be encouraging more growth:
“So which comes first, the chicken or the egg? If word goes forth this
road’s going to happen and you come in with all kinds of developers, it’s
almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
And urban planners agree it really is a chicken and egg relationship. It’s
hard to say which comes first. Highways speed up the pace of growth. And
growth causes a need for more highways.
Bill Klein is the director of research with the American Planning
Association. He says new highways do ease traffic congestion, but only for
a short time, before those highways get packed with people driving out to
their new homes in the suburbs.
“It’s very difficult to build your way out of sprawl. The more highways you
build, the more sprawl you get. Intellectually we’ve known this stuff for a
good long time but sometimes the political will to do anything about it is
the bigger problem.”
In the case of the Prairie Parkway, there is a political heavyweight in the
parkway’s corner. US House Speaker Dennis Hastert has been promoting the
concept of an outer beltway in his district since he went to Congress in the
late 1980’s. Just last year, Speaker Hastert earmarked 207 million dollars
for the beltway in the federal transportation bill.
Landowner Marvel Davis suspects the beltway might not go forward if it
weren’t for the Speaker’s support. She says if someone could show her the
beltway was in the country’s best interest, she’d support it.
“But if I’m going to lose my farm and my community to make a few people
multimillionaires then I’m not willing to do it.”
Marvel Davis says she knows she could make a lot of money if she sold her
land to developers, and she did actually sell more than 100 acres recently.
But she sold it to her county’s forest preserve for half of what she could
get from a developer.
Even though it’s years away, the promise of a new highway is sharply
dividing these communities. Whether or not they see growth as a good thing,
almost everyone agrees a new highway will speed up the pace of that growth.
For the Environment Report, I’m Rebecca Williams.