They have barely finished the benefit concert to raise funds for the last flood, and here comes the next one. Once again, Pittsburgh residents are being forced from their homes. Once again, numerous buildings are swept away. These are the hallmarks of natural disaster.
Unless, of course, such things happen because of highway construction. In which case, it's called progress.
The Mon-Fayette Expressway has been in the planning stages for years, with about another decade (and $4 billion) necessary before it reaches final construction. Appearing as a giant misshapen Y on the map, it will connect to the Parkway East at both Oakland and Monroeville, bypassing that road and connecting to a branch near Braddock, which will connect to locations further south.
The most recent renderings released by the Turnpike Commission illustrate all too vividly what will happen to the traditional but struggling communities that lie in its path. A huge swath of Braddock will be replaced by a superhighway. Much of Hazelwood will be flattened and paved, and the new main feature of the Turtle Creek Valley will no longer be the dramatic view or the historic Westinghouse Bridge, but rather an elevated superhighway, one that pierces the bridge's beautiful profile and comes within 85 feet of three historic churches. Many dozens of structures and acres of historic and picturesque landscape will be destroyed in each location. This is less a transportation plan than a flood of concrete.
The typical argument against saving historic structures is generally that they are out of date and too expensive to fix or restore. Indeed, the historic district in Braddock lost its historic status because so many buildings have simply fallen down for lack of money for repairs or restoration. As a result, there are fewer physical and bureaucratic obstacles, so a $4 billion highway can go through the middle of town much more easily.
Mon-Fayette advocates insist that the new traffic will benefit Braddock by encouraging development. That reasoning is simply false: Look at struggling East Ohio Street on the North Side near the Parkway North. It's also creepy. Do they really have to destroy Braddock to save it? A few tens of millions of dollars to save historic Braddock was derided as an unrealistic pipedream. But now that it's too late, a few billion to flatten what's left for a highway -- there's a great idea.
Perhaps the worst war-is-peace reasoning is the idea that a superhighway is a solution at all. Interstate highways made some sense as ways to facilitate transportation over great distances of sparsely populated countryside, but for cities and towns they can be deadly.
Many local groups -- including Penn Future, Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, Preservation Pittsburgh and Citizens for Alternatives to New Toll Roads -- have made this argument, basing their conclusions on careful research and evidence. So did the recent Brookings Institute Report "Back to Prosperity: A competitive agenda for renewing Pennsylvania." Interstates drain cities. They place disproportionate social and economic burdens on the populations least able to bear them.
Interstates also pose a number of environmental hazards, including air pollution and over-dependence on fossil fuels. Another danger is flooding. Vast paved highways -- and the correspondingly endless mall parking lots whose construction they encourage -- rob the landscape of its ability to absorb water. That increases the likelihood and severity of flash floods. At least we know that those are bad.
But the turnpike commission seems unable to acknowledge the broader negative effects of highway construction. Its typical response to protests or alternative suggestions, such as the road-building plan presented by Citizens for Alternatives to New Toll Roads, is that they are "technically incorrect." That's not how you build a proper superhighway, see.
What's really "technically incorrect" is the idea that we should build a superhighway at all.
In an era of smart growth, sustainable development and a movement of people back to the cities, the idea of a new superhighway is more out-of-date than any under-maintained Victorian building ever was. It's positively antediluvian.