Looking at the Toll Road through Seven Lenses
Hotline, Fall 2001
by Ruth Feathers, Contributing writer for “Hazelwood: Making New Connections” and University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public and International Affairs Graduate.
Based on published designs, the Mon-Fayette Expressway (MFE) will cut through every municipality and neighborhood on the northern shore of the Monongahela River. These communities are mostly low income and/or minority communities, which raises several serious questions. First, is the Mon-Fayette Expressway necessary for the economic health of Southwestern Pennsylvania? If the answer is yes, the larger question then is, should the highway be built at the expense of the economic and environmental health of these communities? The issue can be looked at through seven lenses: efficiency, economic growth, aesthetic and historical heritage, social and moral order, environment/ecology, distributive justice, and neighborhood and community1.
Efficiency: The MFE is envisioned as a high-speed, limited access highway that will avoid the stop-start traffic of existing roads, and will reduce overall traffic congestion by increasing available lanes2. However, traffic engineers have documented that limited access highways create more traffic congestion simply because they concentrate traffic flows, limiting drivers’ choices for avoiding traffic. The addition of lanes results in the same problem, eventually resulting in longer commutes3. Limited access highways also cause traffic and safety problems where they connect with towns and local access roads. Imagine the scene when the interchange for the MFE and Glenwood Bridge meets Second Avenue: the Mon Fayette is expected to be posted at 55 mph, Glenwood is currently posted at 40 mph, and Second Avenue, 25 mph. An interchange that merges these three speed levels has the potential to lead to significant accidents from the confusion about which speed applies to which road, let alone those caused by those drivers who ignore speed limits all together. Given the size of vehicles now traveling the nation’s highways, and the speeds at which they travel, a higher death rate is all but given4.
Economic Growth: Proponents of the highway see it as the cure for all of the Mon Valley’s ills: because the MFE will pass by brownfield sites along the river, it will encourage economic development in these areas. The biggest benefits are expected to be in Fayette and Washington Counties. Joe Kirk, executive director of the Mon Valley Progress Council, Inc. (MVPCI), indicated that approximately 1 million square feet of industrial space in Washington County was ready for occupancy, and that several facilities had already begun to benefit from the completed sections of the MFE, including the Donora Industrial Park, the California Technology Park, and the Rostraver Airport Park; there was “some $162 million worth of investment in six different companies in the mid-Mon Valley and Fayette area that will generate a total of some 570 jobs (approximately $284,000 per job).5” But in April, 2001, the MVPCI’s website indicated that the business parks are largely vacant: there is no major growth in the communities along the Mon, only a relocation of existing companies from inside community boundaries, where the companies at least contributed to municipal tax bases, to outlying areas. The sections that have been complete for the past ten to fifteen years have yet to produce significant results, in large part because manufacturers are unable to find skilled workers in Washington and Fayette Counties and therefore are reluctant to relocate there6.
One area of impact on economic growth is rarely mentioned: the removal of revenue-generating properties from tax rolls. For example, if the 177 parcels in the path of the highway in Hazelwood are considered, the assessed value of these properties totals $15.9 million, which equates to over $470,000 in potential lost property tax revenue7. These are irretrievable revenues that the distressed communities in the Mon Valley can ill afford to lose.
Aesthetic and Historical Heritage: Communities along the Mon River have a strong ethnic and cultural heritage. Many cultural institutions in these towns are located in the proposed path of the MFE. Architectural treasures exist in these towns as well, along with many undocumented historical sites. The Mon/Fayette Expressway Project, PA Route 51 to I 376 at Pittsburgh and Monroeville brochure provided for the March/April 2001 open houses indicated only three sites potentially eligible for the National Register, none identified by name8. Under NHPA and NEPA, all projects receiving any federal funding must identify and protect historic properties. The assessment must include an investigation of all properties that the community believes may have historic value. The highway plan must not only document these sites, but also all efforts to protect the sites from harm; if prevention is not possible, all efforts to mitigate damage must be documented9.
Social and Moral Order: Do suburban commuters traveling by private vehicles have privilege (an inherently higher social value) over residents whose homes are in the path of the highway. Some authors call it “auto hegemony… individual drivers… create problems of exaggerated energy consumption, traffic congestion, and environmental degradation on the collective level – the level of the society and the economy”, and cite auto hegemony as a direct contributor to antisocial behavior and subsequent loss of community10. In the framework of environmental justice: does the highway improve the quality of life for all members of the community, or just the “wheeled” few?11
Environment/Ecology: Motor vehicles cause various types of pollution. Any community the highway passes through will receive the literal and figurative fallout of particulate matter and toxins. Motor vehicles don’t just cause air, soil, and water pollution; they are responsible for noise and light pollution as well. Whether structured as an elevated highway or a below-grade roadbed, a limited access highway such as the MFE concentrates these pollutants. Motor vehicle emissions have resulted in increased occurrences of asthma, emphysema, and lung cancer through the inhalation of minute particles of asbestos from brake linings, rubber particles from tires, or chemical irritants such as nitrous oxides or benzenes: an estimated 120,000 non-accident-related deaths, and healthcare costs of at least $4.3 billion, annually12.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has set a maximum level of seventy decibels (dBA) as acceptable to maintain public health, yet studies show that traffic noise on a busy street weighs in at 85 dBA; a person within 50 feet of trucks traveling at 50 mph experiences a level in excess of 95 dBA13. Many of the homes remaining will be within 50 feet of the highway. Noise pollution from traffic not only contributes to premature hearing loss, but also high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and distraction of concentration; in other words, not only does noise pollution from vehicles cause early deafness, it also increases the body’s reaction to stress levels)14. The Turnpike Commission has no plans to include sound barriers along the highway running through lower income urban neighborhoods. Per T. Fox of the Turnpike commission, it is not cost effective to erect a $5 million sound barrier to protect $50,000 homes15.
Finally, limited access highways require straight lines and a lot of light at exits, and most of the exits appear to land in or near residential areas. Highway lighting is at a higher intensity than normal street lighting, and therefore is much more intrusive for neighborhoods. Homes within 30 to 40 feet of the highway would particularly suffer from spillover16.
Distributive Justice: Who really benefits from the MFE? The Turnpike Commission and regional politicians would make the argument that all will benefit, from ease of access to other locations, to the possibility of bringing new business into the region. Yet by positioning both the northern and southern routes of the highway in poor communities, the overwhelming economic burden falls on the residents of those communities. Those residents are the people who will be forced to relocate: the elderly, the low-income, and the people of color. These are the people who, because of institutionalized racism and classism, may not be able to find replacement housing of sufficient quality, and who therefore will likely be forced into substandard or less than satisfactory replacements.
Neighborhood and Community: A highway running through a community creates a psychological barrier,which can lead to emotional distress, depression, and anxiety for those who are uprooted, as well as those who remain in the severed neighborhoods. Residents experience a loss of community, a loss of connectedness to the social network they once knew. Finally, many suburban residents believe that the plight of urban residents should not concern them; when poor people and people of color are forced to relocate, their only choice, typically, is to move to an area with fewer resources. The “donut” effect that occurs can eventually result in the collapse not only of the central city, but of the surrounding suburbs as well17.
The employees of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission are public servants; they have a fiduciary responsibility to act in the best interests of all residents of Pennsylvania: a moral and legal obligation to follow both the letter and the spirit of applicable Federal, state, and local laws. Is a new highway really the answer to the region’s economic problems? Or could the money be better spent improving the existing infrastructure, investing in mass transit, and investing in the workforce? What could $3 billion in direct investment into these communities do for economic revitalization?
1 Harvey, 1992: 202-203
2 PA Turnpike Commission, 2000
3 Norquist, 1998
4 (Hazelbaker, 2000; Davis & Truett, 2000; NTSB, 1999)
5 Thomas, 1998
6 Mon Valley Progress, 2001
7 Mackin, 2001
8 PA Turnpike, 2001c
9 Weiner, 1999; Kennedy, 2000
10 Freund & Martin, 1993: 6, 11
11 Keene, 2001
12 Freund and Martin, 1993; Holtz-Kay, 1997
13 Freund and Martin, 1993; Steiner, 1978
14 Freund and Martin, 1993; OECD, 1996
15 Fox, 2001
16 Mumphrey, 1970; Steiner, 1978
17 Jargowsky, 1997; Massey & Denton, 1993