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Greg David
Greg David


Highways to sprawl

September 9, 1999

If you plant rice, rice will grow. If you build highways, sprawl will come.

As the environmental representative to the highway 26 expansion and by-pass study group, I feel it is my responsibility to raise several questions pertaining to this expansion project. What is the propose of the highway expansion? What will happen to this area a few years down the line as a result of this project? What has happened in other areas that have done similar road expansions? Are there alternatives that can offer better solutions to traffic congestion?

More and more studies indicate that highway expansion and city bypasses are a leading cause of urban sprawl. This is because the new freeways open new areas to residential and commercial development, areas that in the past would have been simply too far away from the job centers. Simultaneously, while encouraging and subsidizing development of prime farmland, major highway expansion has the effect of causing retail development to move into the suburbs, and this has deleterious effects on downtown businesses.

In case after case we see major highway expansion followed by urban sprawl, decaying city centers and loss of prime farm land and open space. It happened in the Minocqua area of the north woods, in Door County and it's happening in Fort Atkinson. In each case, major land development occurred because the big new roads made an area accessible, that before the road expansion were to far away for convenient commuting. This is a consequence of road expansion, which some say is good, and some say is bad, but most aren't even aware of. People need to decide if the rewards merit the costs and consequences.

Moreover, highway expansion postpones real solutions to traffic congestion problems. Highway expansion is only a band-aid solution, effective for a few years, until development leapfrogs the new roads. With the added development and traffic fostered by new highway expansion, traffic congestion is not improved, but actually becomes worse. This will become a consequence of Highway 26 expansion.

A better solution to traffic congestion would be to treat the cause and not the symptom. What I mean by treating the cause is to look for the reasons so much traffic is forced to use highway 26, and then solve the problem at the root cause. WISDOT studies indicate that over 60 % of highway 26 traffic is local. Why is that? Why is it that most traffic is funneled on to this major artery?

Part of the reason is the result of our zoning patterns. Because municipal zoning only allows industrial development in one area, commercial in another, retail in another and housing in another, for a person to fulfill their least need, a trip in the auto mobile becomes necessary. Further, new subdivision designs which employs the use of cul-de-sac type streets and channeled traffic routes, focus most traffic onto a few arterial streets. These zoning patterns make pedestrian trips impractical and increase our reliance on the automobile. This is a leading cause of water and air pollution and land use inefficiency.

A cheaper and better alternative to our congestion problem would be to change city zoning ordinances to encourage a Traditional type of Neighborhood Development(TND). This allows light industry and housing in the same area. It encourages neighborhood grocery and convenience stores, local schools and community centers, bike and pedestrian paths, housing above downtown retail stores, and in general promotes pedestrian friendly transit. TND helps put people where their jobs are, allows easy access to amenities, and provides alternatives to being forced to use a car for every errand.

The highway 26 expansion could only exacerbate the problem by bringing in more people, developing more farmland and it will do it in such a way that we will simply become another sprawling suburb like Waukesha. It's easy to see these consequences, just look to the east... if we do what we've always done, we'll get what other communities have always gotten: sprawl.

There are alternatives to the expansion of highway 26 that are not being considered by decision makers. These involve new municipal zoning regulations, setting new patterns of city traffic flow and spot improvements to existing highway alignment These alternatives do not fit into WISDOT mandate for ever increasing road construction. A 'build tell you bust' attitude toward road and land development, may not be the 'best and highest use' for our common heritage.

A national movement pressing for alternatives to highway expansion and sprawl as usual is now growing across many states. People wanting more information can contact the Surface Transportation Project at their website: or by calling Citizens for a Better Environment at (414) 271-7475.

If you are interested in learning more about our local highway expansion and land use, and influencing the local decision making process, write the Jefferson County Environmental Network at P. O. Box 142, Watertown, WI, or call (920) 261-4292.