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Maryland’s transportation department claims widening freeways can reduce emissions.
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State transportation departments need to give up on cars

Maryland’s plan to expand its highways is part of a troubling pattern

With a one-mile tunnel below a convention center set to join Las Vegas’s many transportation spectacles, another important detail got sidelined in last week’s hoopla: Vegas might be the Boring Company’s first paying customer, but Maryland’s transportation department is seriously considering building a similar tunnel for cars that would run from Washington D.C. to Baltimore.

The Maryland project was first proposed by Elon Musk as a hyperloop, which would have transported passengers in a frictionless tube at speeds of over 700 miles per hour. But the environmental report commissioned by the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT)—which is open for public comment until June 11—shows a proposal that’s strikingly similar to the Boring Company’s Vegas contract. It’s two 35-mile tunnels for electric vehicles that will only be able to move a paltry 2,000 people per day. (Baltimore’s 18-mile Red Line light-rail project, which was canceled by Republican Governor Larry Hogan in 2017, was expected to move 4,000 people per mile.)

The worst part is that this is not the only misguided transportation project being proposed by MDOT, which is engaged in a disinformation campaign to justify widening two major highways through heavily populated corridors in the state.

“Traffic relief can help address climate change,” stated an MDOT tweet last week. “Nationally recognized EPA model says greenhouse gas emissions decline as speeds increase.”

Citing a “nationally recognized” Environmental Protection Agency model as a way to verify any emissions-reduction data is farcical, especially since the EPA under the Trump administration has actively worked to roll back fuel-efficient vehicle standards, under-report pollution-related deaths, and refute the findings of a major climate report.

The problem is that this data doesn’t actually prove that widening highways will reduce emissions. Of course vehicles that are already in motion and not accelerating from standstill are using less fuel; this is something that’s immediately obvious to anyone who sees the difference between the highway vs. city numbers listed for a vehicle’s miles-per-gallon fuel economy ratio. But adding “managed lanes”—even ones in tunnels underground—doesn’t mean all vehicles are automatically going 50 miles per hour or more all the time.

Additionally, it’s an outright scam to call highway-widening “traffic relief,” which smacks of the Trump administration’s recent attempts to rebrand natural gas as “freedom gas.”

As has been proven time and time again, adding more lanes to highways does not provide “relief,” and in fact makes traffic worse due to the phenomenon of induced demand—building more places for people to drive encourages more people to drive. In Los Angeles, over $1 billion was spent to widen the 405 freeway, and five years later, travel times consistently keep getting worse.

Widening highways has been a signature move for state transportation departments because they often base decisions on outdated data. The notoriously slow-moving organizations spend years, if not decades, studying and building major infrastructure projects that prioritize cars, which are rendered insufficient the moment they open. But that might be changing.

Last week, Colorado’s Department of Transportation (CDOT) announced it was throwing out the list of projects being funded by its $9 billion budget, some of which had been approved more than 10 years ago in a very different climate, both economically and environmentally. The department is spending the summer holding a “listening tour” in all 64 of the state’s counties to find out what projects residents want prioritized, based on health, emissions, and congestion concerns.

“85 percent of our population lives along I-25, and we know that we can’t widen our way out of that corridor,” CDOT executive director Shoshana Lew told Streetsblog Denver, citing a major highway that links the state’s largest cities. “We have to start a serious conversation about multimodal options along the front range.”

There are also more state leaders who are forcing DOTs to start making engineering decisions that align more closely with climate goals. A bill that recently passed out of California’s state assembly requires the state’s transportation department, Caltrans, to prioritize emissions reductions as part of the state’s transportation plan. Another bill from California’s state senate would require all state-funded road construction projects to adhere to complete street guidelines—prioritizing the needs of people walking, biking, and taking transit, which will also help reduce emissions.

In cities, the role of the state DOT should be determining whether or not highways should be kept intact at all. Plenty of U.S. cities are adding freeway cap parks, reimagining underpasses, and reconnecting severed neighborhoods. But in the meantime, there are steps that can be taken immediately to reduce emissions and improve air quality—and, yes, address traffic congestion.

In Paris, where efforts to address the region’s debilitating pollution has reduced car trips by 45 percent since 1990, the city has introduced a bold plan to mitigate the negative impacts of the Périphérique, the 20-mile beltway that encircles the city, much like Maryland’s I-270 encircles D.C.

As Feargus O’Sullivan reports at CityLab, Paris will not only reduce the number of Périphérique lanes from eight to six, the plan also proposes limiting speeds on the highway to 30 miles per hour. The speed reduction might not even be noticeable to most drivers—traffic-clogged highways aren’t always moving that briskly anyway—but the important part is that the change will start making the highway function more like a large street.

The reduced speed limits will also address other local impacts that U.S. transportation departments seem to ignore. Vehicles going 30 miles per hour are much safer because they result in fewer deadly crashes, and fewer crashes (not “managed lanes”) are what keep traffic moving more smoothly. Slower vehicles are also quieter, and excessive noise pollution can be just as damaging to urban communities as air pollution.

As far as what will take the place of the two removed Périphérique lanes, Paris’s plan provides a good model for how states can start to tame their own highways. One lane will be dedicated exclusively to zero-emission vehicles—no tunnel required—and can be used by emergency vehicles if needed. And as the ultimate investment in the city’s future, one lane will be planted with trees.

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