Interstate End State

November 16, 2009

When the last gasoline powered vehicle finally gives up the ghost, whither its residue? That question is beginning to interest a cohort of thinkers beyond the closed doors of the Sierra Club’s board of directors. Evidence can be found in many places, including now the editorial pages of the New York Times.

Yes, the antique car collectors will be vindicated beyond their wildest dreams, but what of the rest of us? Should Americans be concerned that most of the money from the $700 billion stimulus package is being used to repair the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System? Karrie Jacobs, a journalist for Metropolis magazine, likes the idea of fixing the Interstates, but not because it will keep more cars on the road. She is looking ahead, while most of the country is still mired in the bygone era of transportation liberty. One man, one vote, one car.

Her radical idea is that the tentacles of our massive road infrastructure be re-engineered to serve as rail or light rail corridors for a truly modern transportation network,  one that Europe is already building and Asia is planning. “The highway system can’t always be a ghetto for the internal combustion engine,” she argues. It should become an artery for new technologies that bring us closer to sustainability. She also suggests that highways be refitted to become clean energy pipelines, carrying not oil but electricity from alternative sources.

Like most of the dinosaurs left over from the age of big oil, the highway system should be retired. It should not, however, be demolished. Adaptive reuse must become a widespread strategy for re-envisioning the environment for a sustainable future. One of the frustrations of dealing with LEED standards for “greening” the built world is that the program has given little thought to re-use of resources like roads, bridges, and rail corridors. New York has taken the bold step of converting a rusting rail viaduct into a wonderful urban park–the High Line. Other cities are contemplating similar schemes for reusing infrastructure. The Interstates make up the biggest piece of man-made real estate in the U.S., and will soon be a white elephant.

We can still maintain Woody Guthrie’s “ribbon of highway” as a part of the American myth if we live up to the promise of ingenuity and imagination that underpins that great story. Admitting the folly of our dependency on gasoline is the first step. Making use of our expensive and redundant road system will be the next.

One Response to “Interstate End State”

  1. The highway system can’t always be a ghetto for the internal combustion engine,” she argues. It should become an artery for new technologies that bring us closer to sustainability.

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