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Paved with Good Intentions: The Next Corridor “H”

The Cumberland (MD) Times-News is reporting this morning that the Allegany County Commissioners have placed their seal of approval on a proposal to build what amounts to “Son of Corridor H,” a multilane highway to connect Cumberland to the Robert C. Byrd east-west boondoggle to the south. Prodded by a group called the “North South Highway Corridor Committee” and the Greater Cumberland Committee to support a joint resolution, the commissioners stated: “We feel this is a very, very important issue for Allegany County and economic development.”

Since the proposed highway would require no local match, one can certainly understand the attraction of a gigantic public works project like this one, especially during these recessionary times. If it ever comes to fruition decades from now (assuming that there aren’t revolutionary technology developments in the transportation industry like travel pods), it would temporarily pump hundreds of millions in construction monies into the area and create hundreds of jobs, though many of the jobs would be filled by non-resident workers for outside contractors. Once the highway opened, it would have a marginal impact on local employment. You’d see some rearranging of the economic geography with retail establishments clustering closer to highway exits. You’d see more residential sprawl. For an investment of $1 billion or so, the affected counties might experience a net impact of a few hundred permanent jobs, mostly in low paying service and retail trade sectors.

A terrible thing to waste

Another economic development dead end

Why? New highways and expanded highways have their largest economic impacts where existing capacity bottlenecks and agglomeration economies exist. But, let’s face it: Route 220, which runs in the direction of the proposed corridor is not experiencing any bottlenecks. It’s a lightly traveled thoroughfare. When you get past Rawlings, MD, you can often drive for miles without encountering an oncoming car. Thus, a new highway would have very small total user benefits. That’s why Wilbur Smith Associates found that similar highways built in lightly populated areas as part of the Appalachian Highway System have a negative ROI. We’ve known these things for decades. Former ARC Executive Director, Ralph Widner, who oversaw the planning and construction of much of the ARC highway system acknowledged the mistake years later in a pensive 1990 article in Economic Development Quarterly in which he faulted the ARC for placing too little emphasis on developing human resources.

When the numbers don’t add up, expect the proponents to reach elsewhere for support. They’ll tout the improved highway safety and potential for reduced accidents (without acknowledging the increased pollutants and deleterious effects on, for example, asthmatics). They’ll assert that it will improve national defense, citizen evacuation, and police mobilization (without acknowledging that it improves criminal and terrorist movement and is associated with increased crime as well). They’ll hold aloft a few advocacy studies with poor research designs purporting to show how the areas will thrive economically as a result of the new asphalt. They’ll argue that the Marcellus shale discovery changes the entire economic rationale.

Who are the biggest losers in this economic development equation? First, the local public who fall for yet another economic development whopper, and lose valuable time in developing worthwhile economic development projects created through publicly engaged planning which focuses on the area’s assets, including human and natural resources. Second, everything else. The proposed corridor would cut through another fairly intact forest area, inducing a pattern of fragmentation that will render an entire swath of wilderness reaching several miles in each direction useless as an environmental asset, devastating ecological services, and destroying biodiversity.

A terrible thing to waste

A terrible thing to waste

Ezekial 38:20 warned us of what a wrathful god could do:

So that the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the heaven, and the beasts of the field, and all creeping things that creep upon the earth, and all the men that are upon the face of the earth, shall shake at my presence, and the mountains shall be thrown down, and the steep places shall fall, and every wall shall fall to the ground.

Turns out that we are quite capable of doing ourselves in without any heavenly ire.

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Posted in Economics, Environment. Tagged with , , , , , .

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