• Credit: Peter Arkle

The $27 billion in the stimulus package earmarked for roads represents the largest investment in the federal highway system since its creation half a century ago, and billions more have been proposed. Time magazine calls the plan, which will revamp and expand much of the nearly 50,000 miles snaking from coast to coast and border to border, one of “10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now.” Yes, but is it change for the better?

On the plus side, the project will create jobs overnight and repair damaged roadways, possibly reducing traffic-related injuries and fatalities. On the downside, it’s a quick fix that could make things worse in the long run.

Transportation accounts for 70 percent of U.S. oil consumption and is our second largest source of CO2 emissions, due to tailpipe exhaust and the industrial production of cement and other materials. More paving, more carbon. Runaway roadways destroy habitats, sever migratory routes, disrupt water systems, aggravate soil erosion, and raise temperatures by fueling heat-island effects. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the amount of concrete already in place, if collected in one surface, would cover an area the size of Ohio. Shall we pave over Indiana while we’re at it?

The government believes that highway growth will aid commuters, but commuters don’t agree. A recent National Association of Realtors poll found that 75 percent of respondents prefer improving public transportation and reshaping communities to reduce car dependence, while only 21 percent want new roads. Yet many cities are slashing transit budgets and expanding freeways. In a survey published in January, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group discovered that most states plan to devote little of the stimulus funding to public transit—17 percent, on average, though many will allocate less than 1 percent, and possibly nothing at all.

Pouring money into pavement merely preserves a failed system. The stimulus road plan may create jobs temporarily, but focusing on public transit could generate even more jobs for a longer period while stimulating human and environmental health and giving commuters what they want. The billions being spent to pave over the problem could be spent solving it. ?

Next month: How our highways are literally killing us.