There’s no shortage of cynical greenwashing to sell climate-killing highway widening projects
GeorgiaDOT and AASHTO have a new PR gimmick to promote the same old product
In a famous season one sketch of Portlandia, Fred Armisten and Carrie Brownstein popularized the catch-phrase, “Put a bird on it” about a hipster couple who transformed all manner of worthless crap into trendy objet d’art with bird appliqués.
Not to be outdone, highway advocates have adopted the same “put a bird on it” philosophy to greenwash road expansions. Here’s their logo for something they grandly call “Planning and Environmental Linkages”
There’s a turquoise blue sky, white mountains, a green forest and a blue highway. There’s a single, soaring bird, but nary a car to be seen anywhere.
But if you look past the bird and the other greenwash, you find a program that’s simply a cynical and vapid rebranding of what highway departments have always done: building more and wider roads with no concern for the consequences. The highway builder’s fraternity, AASHTO—the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials—is the sponsor and promoter “Planning and Environmental Linkages.” A typical PEL project comes from the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT).
Planning and Environmental Linkages or PEL represents a collaborative and integrated approach to transportation decision-making that 1) considers environmental, community, and economic goals early in the transportation planning process, and 2) uses the information, analysis, and products developed during planning to inform the environmental review process.
The benefits include: Improved relationships with stakeholders; improved project delivery timelines; and better transportation programs and projects.
The description is replete with the appropriate buzzwords—collaborative, stakeholders, improved—but its clear from the description that this greenwash pure and simple. Note that PEL only gives procedural weight to environmental and community factors—it will “consider” them—but offers no substantive metrics, like reducing vehicle miles traveled, or lower greenhouse gas emissions. It says it will “use” this information in the planning process, but doesn’t say how. (In our experience, it’s usually for denial and obfuscation). Ultimately, there’s no question of the objective here: delivering transportation projects: The only tool we have is a hammer, and by God, all our problems are nails.
But the reality of what the GDOT is planning shows a profound disdain for the environment. This becomes clear when one digs deeper into the example of “Planning and Environmental Linkages” offered by AASHTO. Its a huge project to widen I-85 in the Atlanta metro area. The plan is plainly to add vastly more car-carrying capacity on I-85, through a combination of additional travel lanes, shoulder driving, “auxiliary lanes,” the construction of “collector/distributor” side-roads along the freeway, and mammoth new car-oriented intersections, like this diverging diamond interchange.
To get a more detailed idea of how they’d integrate environmental concerns into project planning, we took a quickly look at the “I-85 PLANNING AND ENVIRONMENTAL LINKAGES (PEL) STUDY Corridor Strategies Memo. Strangely for a report that promises to address “environmental linkages” there’s virtually no mention of the environment, or the highway’s negative impact on the climate and adjacent communities. The words “climate,” “pollution,” “greenhouse gas,” and “emissions” do not appear anywhere 30-page report. There are two mentions of “bicycles”, one of them in the context of diverging diamond interchanges, which are notoriously hostile to non-auto travelers. The message of the document is clear: the word “environment” might be on the cover, but the needs of the environment and non-auto users are simply irrelevant to the final outcome.
If you really cared about environment, you might pay attention to the fact that greenhouse gas emissions from transportation have been increasing steadily and sharply in Georgia. Since 2012, metro Atlanta’s average emissions per capita are up more than 1,000 pounds per person.
In short, this is all about generating the perception that GDOT cares about the environment. It doesn’t. It includes environmental concerns in only the vaguest and most procedural senses, not specifying any substantive or measurable goals. It focuses on options that are all about making driving easier and expanding capacity, with lip service given to alternative modes. And it doesn’t even bother to acknowledge pressing environmental problems. Just put a bird on it.