A Future Beyond Ribbons of Concrete

January 31, 1994|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Traffic horrors in the wake of the Los Angeles earthquake provide the latest reminder -- as if we needed it -- of America's foolhardy course in placing such massive reliance on 3,000-pound metal boxes, generally occupied by a single passenger, running along giant ribbons of concrete.

But some good news has emerged on the transportation front. The Clinton administration will recommend full funding for the 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, known as iced tea'' for its acronym, ISTEA.

In one sense, ISTEA is just another highway-funding bill and symptomatic of our national problem. But the statute took a massive step toward rationality by rejecting the ''highways first and forever'' mindset of the interstate era, obliging states and metropolitan regions to calculate whether mobility needs can be met better, on occasion, by mass transit or facilities connecting road, rail and air transportation.

Efficiency, environmental soundness and energy savings also figure into the criteria. There is even space, under the act, for such transportation-related enhancements as greenways and bike paths, sound mitigation and historic preservation.

The transit and enhancement features have had a tough time getting attention from state highway and transportation departments, partly because the state bureaucracies are still mired in a highway-building mentality, but also because in the last two years actual congressional appropriations for ISTEA have come in billions of dollars below the figures authorized in the act.

That's given the highway traditionalists a handy excuse: Projects already in the pipeline use up all the available dollars. With full funding, the alternative approaches will have a better chance of seeing the light of day. Indeed, under ISTEA's ''use it or lose it'' provisions, states and regions will have new incentive to get more of the transit and enhancement projects ready for contract.

Just as important, full funding should make it easier for the promising ''civic side'' of the program to flourish. ISTEA not only marked the end of the interstate building era but a new focus on communities, quality of life and maintaining the roads the nation had already built. Planning for new transportation projects was to be shared by the states and metropolitan planning organizations. And the law said the public had to be involved from the earliest stages.

There's been uneven performance. U.S. Department of Transportation officials say that in regions accustomed to collaboration, such as San Francisco, Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, officials, citizens and advocacy groups have worked smoothly together. The states of Florida and New Jersey did well. Columbus, Georgia, used ISTEA money to spark a dramatic remaking of its entire downtown and waterfront.

But performance has generally been spotty. Missouri officials refused to spend a penny on mass transit or transportation enhancements unless Washington funds ISTEA at 100 percent levels.

In time, all this should improve. The new law ''is forcing us to act as a region,'' notes Robert Kochanowski, executive director of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Regional Planning Commission, which includes Pittsburgh. ''I can clearly see our region's leaders discussing and giving serious thought to issues that divide them.''

One can only hope more state governments will shake off their old ''concrete first and always'' habits and support collaborative planning. That may go against the grain of governors, legislators or highway departments who have pet projects. President Clinton may have trouble getting Congress, too, to back off earmarked highway projects for members' home districts.

But the biggest challenge of all may be to state governments, the big policy innovators of the '80s, to stop dictating and start respecting bottoms-up planning as metropolitan regions try to bolster local economies. Few regions will succeed unless they can reduce heavy energy dependence, cut air pollution and become more transit-efficient.

In auto-happy California, after the destructive Bay Area earthquake of 1989, rapid transit provided a transit lifeline after freeway segments and sections of the Oakland Bay Bridge collapsed. San Francisco decided to tear down the Embarcadero Freeway and replace it with a surface boulevard on which a trolley line is planned.

Los Angeles ought to take this month's monstrous jolt as an opportunity for fresh thinking. The region should consider, says Hank Dittmar of the Washington-based Surface Transportation Policy Project, taking such assets as the publicly owned rail right-of-way that parallels almost the entire length of the damaged Santa Monica Freeway and turning it into a mass-transit line.

ISTEA stands for public investment based on that common-sense kind of solution. Nobody suggests L.A. will have an autoless future, not for a century or more. But ecology draws immense benefits from diversity. We need to apply the same intelligence to our transportation systems.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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