Highway Widening and its Potential Detrimental Effects in Tucson

Jenn Burdick a representative from the Tucson Transportation Dept gives a presentation on the Broadway Corridor Project

When I first came to Tucson to meet my friend Doctress Nuetopia we went to a Sustainable Tucson Meeting at the Tucson Central Library.

The discussion focused on an effort to expand a street called Broadway from 4 to 8 lanes from Euclid to Country Club and is part of a larger effort by the highway department there to aggressively expand roads to handle projected increases in traffic.

An overview of the Sustainable Tucson discussion can be found here and below is a snippet of the overview found on the page that relates to the general purpose of the meeting and the goals:

Neighborhood and City goals should be updated and integrated given the interrelated issues of mobility and urban form. In this age of fiscal and environmental constraints, we have the opportunity (and calling) to redirect limited funds to support live-ability and vibrancy at the neighborhood level while implementing a transportation system that unites and serves the larger city. Additionally, now is the time to address larger embedded issues such as the Urban Heat Island effect (UHI) and Climate Change.

To mitigate temperatures neither current nor future inhabitants of Tucson want to endure and to ensure live-able and vibrant communities we must seek alternatives to current built-environment and mobility practices that solve rather than add to an unsustainable city. The Broadway Boulevard Project discussion is a great place to start.

Presenters included:

  • Jen Burdick – Broadway Corridor project manager for the TDOT
  • Colby Henley – Citizen’s Task Force and local Neighborhood Association member
  • Tres English – Sustainable Tucson

Currently there are efforts underway to  incorporate local Neighborhood goals with those of the transportation planning agencies. This is happening through the Broadway Citizen’s Task Force (CTF). The findings of the 1st meeting are here: http://cms3.tucsonaz.gov/broadway. However, there is a great deal of skepticism among the public interested in this issue that a approach will come out of the deliberations that will balance a whole range of public interests rather than just increasing traffic flow by expanding road lanes.

The discussion was led by Sustainable Tuscon Chair Ron Proctor. At the start of the discussion he offered some of his concerns about the project. One thing he mentioned is a site called ClimateCodeRed.net and that he believes that we are at a tipping point for climate change. Before the formal discussion, Neutopia introduced me to Ron Proctor and it came up that he had actually done a 5 week workshop at Arcosanti in the 80s.

Proctor mentioned that a major concern of his was the Urban Heat Island effect and that adding more pavement to the city will only increase this problem compounding with the problem of rising temperatures associated with Global Climate Change. He cited the statistic that one mile of highway lane = 100000 more tons of CO2 over 50 years. He referenced an ASU study on urban development which concluded that temps may increase in Tucson and Phoenix by as much as 8 degrees just due to increased road building alone by 2050.  Matei Georgescu, one of the report writers, notes that urban development could by itself, increase average June-August temperatures by as much as 7 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050. Add in another 5 degrees due to the effects of greenhouse gas emissions over the same period (United States Global Change Research Project), and it becomes apparent that “business as usual” will significantly affect the health, live-ability, and pocketbooks of Tucsonans.

Colby Henley is a Citizen’s Task Force and local Neighborhood Association member. His concern centers on how his Rincon Heights neighborhood will be affected, particularly by what he terms Edge Effects which refer to the impact of roadways and transmission lines on the quality of life in the neighborhood.

A major concern is that building a massive 8 lane road can create barriers that reduce accessibility especially for pedestrians and bikers who want to avoid or do not have access to a car for their transport needs. He notes that public policy is made primarily with a consideration for what he terms “autocentric functionality” and he advocates for a more equal playing ground that other groups and the general community or neighborhood well being can be considered as well.

The Regional Transportation Authority is apparently an organization with a lot of power over how highway money is allocated within metro Tucson. Some at the meeting seemed to believe that RTA policy makers advocates or has a bias towards what is termed Functionality in transport systems designs in which the flow of the cars is the primary determiner of success. The term can be defined differently economics and historic preservation are also important considerations of a more balanced view of Functionality because if a highway is not serving the long term well being of the people living in a community then what’s the point?

Tres English is someone whose name I was familiar with in the past. I had discussed with him on various times regarding Arcology over the years while participating in the Sustainable Tucson Discussion Group on Yahoo. So it was interesting to see him do a presentation and see how he has refined his ideas.

Tres English gave a great presentation on how the face of our cities needs to change dramatically in order to be sustainable. He differs from the approach advocated by Paolo Soleri in that he is seeking to transform existing suburban areas, rather than seeking to impose an entirely new and alien system (that may or may not work because its mostly a theoretical assumption put forward by one lone architect visionary) upon them called Arcology. While Arcology may eventually be developed as an experimental prototype and may eventually have a role in designing urban alternatives to sprawl, it has not as of yet had any practical impact within the urban planning and development community. Smart Growth/NewUrbanism which English advocates has begun to be developed on a small scale in various experimental nodes around the country and appears to be working as an alternative to conventional sprawl type development.

A key thing point out by English was the difference in the definition of Functionality. The idea beyond New Urbanism is to move to things to people rather than move people to things which is the more conventional modern autocentric view. Its becoming increasingly clear, the simplistic ways in which car culture was foisted upon us. Mobility was associated with freedom and the freedom of open road has been used to sell cars and convince people that this model is central to progress and improvement in their lives.

While all the mainstream talk focuses on a fear of unsustainable government spending that is pushing America off a “fiscal cliff” the drivers of this reality are little understood. This is why it is foolhardy to advocate policies for economic growth and governmental reform that do not address the core issues. For example if the statistics put forward by environmental and sustainable researchers are correct, we have reached the law of diminishing returns with the car culture suburbia development model.

The costs to maintain cars and its supporting infrastructure has led to a immense and unsustainable economic, social and ecological price tag. A lot of concerns were discussed at the meeting that referred to the rising cost of Car Culture in addition to the impact on increasing the Heat Island Effect through more paving and rising global temperatures associated with Global Climate Change which translates into more extreme weather events and a less livable city and region not to mention adverse effects on climates and weather throughout the globe.

English suggests that any serious sustainable Tucson plan needs to include a strategy to build a network of urban villages with the current borders of the metro Tucson area. He terms it a urban village network.

This would be built from existing commercial centers with the goal of making beautiful places that people would actually want to use and live in or nearby.

To build a sustainable Tucson the “mobility obsession” that defines currently public policy has to end and we are going to have to rethink the prevailing modes of transportation and designs cities for people rather than cars, commercial culture and the corporations.

What kind of technology do we have available that is the least destructive to the planet and can get people around effectively? English says the bike is real mobility alternative to the car so he suggests that the planning should involve designing urban neighborhood commercial centers with consideration to the range that we can easily get to shops and work with our bikes.

If you want to consider alternatives to sprawl I believe a pragmatic approach is needed as well as the more idealistic one put forward by Arcology pioneer Paolo Soleri. That means considering various efforts to counter business as usual highway building models. So I found the persuasiveness of their presentations and the overall discussion very encouraging. Obviously there is a great challenge to reverse the huge momentum invested in car culture but the fact that people care enough to make their arguments so compelling is uplifting.

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