A "Green Lining" Emerges As We Deleverage Out Of Debt

I just read a sobering, informative book about the great recession we’re mired in at present – Pinched: How the Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures and What We Can Do About It. While reading it, and watching recent decisions by transportation agencies, I could just make out a green lining that may emerge from this dark economic cloud we’re all under now.

Because of severely strapped budgets, a sharp drop off in federal funding, and politicians’ unwillingness to push for higher gas taxes, several states have reached the conclusion that they can no longer afford to build new highways.  They are finding they can, at the most, try to maintain what they already have.

Wyoming is the most recent state to come to the realization that it can no longer afford highway business as usual. The head of the state’s Department of Transportation, John Cos, in a video released in November by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, says that the state would have to confine itself to trying to keeping existing roads in repair.

Missouri, Virginia and Ohio have made similar announcements (and unfortunately also reduced their workforces substantially).

The halting of expensive projects wouldn’t just ease the load on strained public budgets, it could yield environmental benefits by sparing of land from being covered with asphalt reducing potential oil-consuming and greenhouse-gas spewing trips on the new roads.

The suspension of new highway projects could also produce a long-lasting green lining if, during the hiatus, people begin reconsidering the design of our communities. Public officials should consider alternatives that are more affordable, such as communities where stores and services are not a car’s trip away from housing, but instead, within walking and bicycling distance.

This would be shift away from a boomtime bubble of overspending in far-flung suburbs, as Richard Florida is quoted describing in Pinched:

Cities grew, tax coffers filled, spending continued, more people arrived. Yet the boom itself neither followed nor resulted in the development of sustainable, scalable, highly productive industries or services. It was fueled and funded by housing, and housing was its primary product. Whole cities and metro regions became giant Ponzi schemes.

And the insightful Chuck Marohn, executive director of Strong Towns, talks in compelling terms about how our car-dependent communities are a financial drain as well as being environmentally damaging.

Nevertheless, some positive steps to move away from communities exclusively built around cars are likely to be scrapped along with new highways and bridges to nowhere. Federal money, for example, has been cut for the Sustainable Communities program- intended to reduce the need for highways by creating more connected communities. And, in Missouri, the budget cuts also include reductions in funding for bikes and pedestrian routes.

We’ll get some greenlining just from the curtailment of major highway construction projects. Hopefully local and state leaders will also move beyond across the board cuts to work on reshaping our communities in ways that are fiscally smart, economically competitive and environmentally sound.