Urban Sprawl article

This article is from the New York Times and talks primarily about the Tappan Zee Bridge north of New York City.


The Cost of Urban Sprawl: Unplanned Obsolescence

January 30, 2000

When New York state opened the Tappan Zee Bridge in 1955 to span the Hudson River at its widest point, officials proudly said they were opening up new frontiers to the suburbs and beyond. The bridge would pay dividends far beyond its $81 million cost, "in new satellite communities, in increased land values and in countless other less tangible ways," said Walter Mahoney, a Republican who was majority leader of the state Senate.

This month, when a task force appointed by Gov. George Pataki called for a $4 billion project to replace the bridge, the language was strikingly different.

There was no brave talk of new subdivisions or shopping centers. Instead, the task force cast the bridge replacement almost as a mass transit project -- a way to contain the suburban sprawl that the bridge had been built to generate in the first place.

It said the new span should include tracks for a commuter rail line. And to relieve the rush-hour traffic that often results in six-mile logjams, the panel called for a new toll-collection system that would offer discounts to off-peak travelers.

Costly and controversial as it is sure to be, the project may never get off the ground. But whether it does or not, it has already signaled a fundamental shift in the way major public works projects are conceived, promoted and packaged, not just in New York but all over the country.

What has changed, of course, is that sprawl has become a dirty word. When the dividends trumpeted in the 1950s turned out to have their own costs (including the heavy traffic that has made the Tappan Zee Bridge and other roadways obsolete), public officials and transportation planners had to change their vocabularies.

Rather than proclaim the merits of suburban development and car travel, as the legendary master builder Robert Moses did in New York state from the 1920s to the '60s, they are framing new road projects in cautious, modest terms, often coupled with ideas for mass transit and relief of traffic congestion. Vice President Al Gore has made such initiatives a centerpiece of his campaign for president.

Not so many years ago, it was common wisdom that the only way to relieve highway congestion was to add new lanes. Now the common wisdom, supported by several recent studies, is that expanding a road usually leads to substantial increases in the number of vehicles on it. "Adding highway capacity to solve traffic congestion is like buying larger pants to deal with your weight problem," said Michael Replogle, transportation director of the advocacy group Environmental Defense, in Washington.

So in New Jersey, the state transportation commissioner, James Weinstein, could go before a business group last week and utter words that would have been heresy in that car-besotted state just a few years ago: "We're past the period where adding lanes is the solution to traffic congestion, make no mistake about that."

Weinstein added that most of the money in a new $500 million transportation bond act would go toward mass transit and road repairs. "The commissioner feels quite strongly that we cannot build our way out of congestion," said his spokesman, John Dourgarian. "The days of new highway construction are over."

Off-peak discounts have been tried in California and a few other states, with mixed success. In Maryland, Gov. Parris Glendening has killed five highway bypass projects, fearful that they would encourage sprawl, and pledged to double the number of transit riders by 2020. To get people out of their cars and promote downtown revitalization, the state has also built 50 miles of sidewalks in the last two years, said John Freece, an assistant to the governor. Even the state highway administrator has adopted a slogan that would cheer anti-sprawl activists: "Thinking Beyond the Pavement."

The Tappan Zee Bridge may be something of a special case. It is severely overcrowded, handling 130,000 vehicles a day, 30 percent over capacity. (The planners envision an increase from seven lanes to eight.) And because it is so long -- built at the Hudson's widest point to escape the 25-mile jurisdiction of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey -- it is unusually expensive to maintain, repair and, if necessary, replace.

Still, the debate over the Tappan Zee echoes one in Washington over the dilapidated Woodrow Wilson Bridge, on the Potomac River. While there is wide agreement on the need to rebuild or replace the bridge, a growing chorus of citizens, transportation groups and government officials argue that a replacement structure should accommodate as much mass transit and congestion pricing as possible.

Such talk pleases Robert A. Caro, author of "The Power Broker" (Alfred A. Knopf, 1974), the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Robert Moses that was one of the first works to focus on the toll of build-at-all-costs highway construction on neighborhoods, the environment and the overall quality of life.

In recent years, Caro said, a growing number of public officials have written to tell him the era of Moses is over.

"To a really encouraging extent," he said, "I see that there's a new understanding that it's no good just to go on blindly building huge projects in the way that Robert Moses did. I don't think we've come full circle, but I think we've come a long way."

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Last updated 1/31/00