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Planning NAFTA Superhighways at the
End of the Age of Oil
Part One

Mark Robinowitz

© Copyright 2006, From The Wilderness Publications, All Rights Reserved. This story may NOT be posted on any Internet web site without express written permission. Contact May be circulated, distributed or transmitted for non-profit purposes only.

May 10, 2006 1100 PST – (FTW) - Transportation planning in the United States—the epicenter of oil combustion—has been remarkably impervious to rising gasoline prices and growing awareness of climate change and the geological reality of finite fossil fuel supplies. Hundreds of billions of dollars have been committed for massive expansions of the interstate highway system. The plans for these “NAFTA superhighways” and Outer Beltways assume limitless cheap oil, a trillion dollar mistake that must be corrected if there is hope for a renewable energy society after petroleum. This article examines transportation planning in the United States and offers a tool that concerned citizens could use to force governments to shift long-term plans to prepare to mitigate Peak Oil.

Peak Oil: Personal Impact and Public Policies

Three-dollar-a-gallon gasoline has increased public concern about energy supplies, but this awareness has not translated into changes in public policies. Widespread outrage about astronomical oil company profits has not fueled political pressure to tax excessive profits to fund a European style inter-city rail network, put solar panels on millions of homes or other initiatives designed for a Post-Peak Oil world.

The arrival of Peak Oil and climate change onto the world political stage has not deterred governments from further investments in suburban sprawl, more highways, and other overdevelopment dependent on endless supplies of dollar a gallon petrol.

A large part of the public discussion about Peak Oil is about personal transportation issues, since most people’s consciousness of industrial energy systems is focused on purchasing petroleum at the pump. There are many excellent strategies for reducing one’s energy consumption: driving less, carpooling, car sharing, using public transportation (if available), bicycling, walking, living closer to your job (if possible) and buying locally made products to reduce transportation demands. However, an effective response to Peak Oil will require efforts at all levels—family, neighborhood, city, state, nation and planet—to be useful in the post-Peak era.

From The Wilderness, Life After the Oil Crash, Energy Bulletin, and many other news sources have documented that the most important issues of Peak Oil are about food supplies (especially for metropolitan areas far removed from farms), civil liberties, economic instabilities, and global conflicts.

A shift in transportation policy that admits to Peak Oil and climate change is needed to spark widespread discussions of needed changes to retool civilization for a post-carbon future.

The Highway Industrial Complex

"Above all, it is the young who succumb to this magic. They experience the triumph of the motorcar with the full temperament of their impressionable hearts. It must be seen as a sign of the invigorating power of our people that they give themselves with such fanatic devotion to this invention, an invention which provides the basis and structure of our modern traffic."
- Adolf Hitler

American way of life (AWOL): a method of consuming non-renewable resources that Vice President Dick Cheney says is "not negotiable."
- Permatopia Dictionary

Since World War II, car culture has transformed the literal and political maps of North America. The many impacts of identical sprawlvilles from coast to coast are well documented in countless reports, books, and documentaries, and the spread of these homogenous exurbs is a core part of the spiritual crisis our society faces at the end of the era of cheap oil.

Highway construction is a key part of the wealth-transfer scheme called “the economy.” Road expansion unites powerful interests, including real estate speculators, developers, road construction, sand and gravel mining, and lending institutions. In most communities in North America, these elites are the financial sponsors of local politicians who make zoning and planning decisions to build new highways and the associated development.

In the U.S, nearly all large highways are built with federal transportation funds, and are usually supported by a coalition of federal, state and local governments. However, controversial federal aid highways can be approved over local government objections, and there are cases where the federal government is split about a proposal (usually if there are major environmental or legal problems).

If a highway violates too many federal laws, the Federal Highway Administration may decide not to approve a road project even if local governments are vocal supporters (since the FHWA is the agency that gets sued, not local governments who contribute very little toward construction but gain all of the benefits).

Multiple Bypass Surgery

The interstate highway system was created in the 1950s, part of a “National Defense” network promoted by President Eisenhower as a military necessity for moving troops and equipment (similar to the Autobahn network built in Nazi Germany).

This massive construction was a consequence of the conspiracy between General Motors, Firestone Tire, and Standard Oil to destroy public transit systems in over 100 cities (partly a result of these companies using their war profits to transform the civilian economy). A websearch on “streetcar conspiracy” will retrieve numerous articles that document this part of American history.

Ironically, the United States is now spending billions to build new light rail and street car networks in cities from coast to coast—if the rails had been left intact, American cities would not be as car dependent, a tragic mistake that will make coping with Peak Oil much more difficult.

The interstates quickly became fuel for generating vast areas of car-dependent suburbs that created a “donut” form of development, turning some inner cities into semi-abandoned areas.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of many who decried the inherent racism of these road schemes. In his speech "Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution," delivered on March 31, 1968, King said, "These forty million [poor] people are invisible because America is so affluent, so rich; because our expressways carry us away from the ghetto, we don't see the poor." It is surreal that numerous highways are now named after someone who criticized the “white flight” fueled by freeways.

During the peak of the civil rights struggle in Washington, D.C., a rallying cry of opponents who spent a decade to stop Interstate 95 from tearing through the inner city was “No White Men's Roads Through Black Men's Homes.” An article that explores this history is “Interview with a Freeway Fighter.”

Cities that had public campaigns to stop the building of highways include: Boston, San Francisco, Memphis, Toronto (Canada), Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Chicago, New Orleans, Portland (OR), Eugene (OR), and Pasadena (CA).

In the wake of the 1960s explosion of freeway fighting, few new major highways were proposed. The focus of many transportation agencies was to complete projects proposed in the 1950s, which were delayed by the rise of citizen activism and increasing construction costs (especially after the 1973 Saudi oil embargo).

In the 1990s, there was a resurgence of plans for new freeways. Several major upgrades to the interstate system were unveiled to help implement the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), building new and expanded north-south trucking routes between Canada and Mexico. Metastasizing metropolitan areas also made new plans for megaroads, since outer suburbs require more asphalt per capita and are more car dependent than urban cores or inner suburbs built during the street car era (early 1900s).

NAFTA Superhighways: Bush, Clinton, Bush

The NAFTA superhighway concept was first included in the 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Act (ISTEA). ISTEA was enacted two years before the NAFTA treaty was passed by a Democratic controlled Congress. ISTEA included numerous new and expanded north-south interstate highways to facilitate increased truck traffic between Canada and Mexico, plus dozens of other projects to benefit the highway lobby, national distributors such as Wal-Mart, and spreading suburban sprawl. This was George H. W. Bush’s highway law.

ISTEA’s expansion of the highway network was followed by the 1998 Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), which funneled even more pork dollars for bypasses and NAFTA superhighways. Bill Clinton signed TEA-21 into law.

George W. Bush’s turn at the public trough was Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU), an even larger expansion than ISTEA or TEA-21.

The full extent of these expansions has received very little public scrutiny, even from most groups that do not want more roads. It is odd that amateur enthusiasts who like freeways and want more of them have done a better job of tracking the expansion of the national highway network than the environmental groups. For example, the Sierra Club’s transportation website is an excellent resource of the social and environmental impacts from highways’ “induced demand” (building more roads creates more traffic jams), and why public transit is beneficial—but the Sierra Club and their allies do not highlight the new superhighway network that is the largest part of these transportation appropriations.

Proposed Highways

This map from the Federal Highway Administration shows new and expanded highways proposed in ISTEA and TEA-21. Corridor 18 is the proposed extension of Interstate 69, perhaps the most prominent “NAFTA superhighway” project. Highway boosters in Indiana campaigning to extend I-69 from Indianapolis to Kentucky convinced their allies in other states to band together to make an integrated NAFTA superhighway proposal a national priority to ensure federal funding for their segment. The 2005 SAFETEA-LU law has 80 priority corridors—a massive highway expansion on the cusp of Peak Oil.

Limited Hang Out: “Inter-modal” Transportation

ISTEA was sold to the national environmental groups as a multi-modal transportation bill, funding not just new and wider roads but also public transit systems and bicycle/pedestrian improvements. ISTEA did appropriate billions for subways, light rail, buses and required that each State Department of Transportation had to include pedestrian and bicycle issues. Much of the literature from these groups made ISTEA seem like an effort to ensure that every community would have bicycle lanes and effective public transit, while ignoring the fact that most of the money went toward roads.

TEA-21, the Transportation Equity Act, was also marketed as an environmental improvement by most environmental groups. However, the “Equity” did not refer to choice between transportation modes, but to funding levels between the States.

Despite these lopsided funding levels (roads vs. transit), most national environmental groups rallied behind the meager improvements in ISTEA and TEA-21 and ignored the embedded NAFTA superhighway proposals. Many of these organizations are dependent on grants from foundations invested in destructive industries. This dynamic is similar to the left gatekeepers” phenomenon that has kept the liberal “alternative” media from examining issues such as the coup against President Kennedy and the war games on 9/11 that confused the air defenses over Washington and New York.

The “inter-modal” emphasis was effective at splitting environmentalists between those who are appeased by inclusion of a bike path along a new highway and those with a holistic perspective who want a paradigm shift.

An example of the compromising approach is a recent action alert from the Washington Area Bicyclist Association urging its members to demand inclusion of a bicycle path along the proposed $3 billion Inter County Connector superhighway in Maryland. This campaign did not express solidarity with the many environmental and community groups who have spent years (and decades) in opposition to this enormously destructive project, but focused solely on the side-issue of whether this new segment of the Washington Outer Beltway would have a token parallel bike route or not.Highway Traffic

Interstate 84 in Portland, Oregon: six lanes of freeway traffic plus the MAX Light Rail line. The traffic on I-84 is helping to melt the polar ice caps, but at least commuters in this area have a choice of transportation options. (The electricity to run the train is generated by a blend of hydropower, coal, natural gas, nuclear power and wind.)

Environmentalist Myopia

The environmental movement has largely ignored the ecological implications of Peak Oil, despite the fact the solutions to finite fossil fuels and climate change are intertwined and nearly identical.

An example of environmentalist refusal to incorporate Peak Oil into their analyses is the “Region 2040” program in Portland, Oregon. This long-term-planning effort grew out of the Land Use, Transportation, Air Quality (LUTRAQ) initiative, one of the more famous examples of “progressive” land use planning. LUTRAQ was an effort that successfully stopped a proposed freeway bypass by showing that a new rail line, combined with land-useshifts to encourage transit-oriented development, was superior to the highway for traffic mitigation and air quality levels. Region 2040 and LUTRAQ are improvements over the traditional suburbia development model, but their omission of Peak Oil suggest they are going to be irrelevant long before the year 2040.

Environmental perspectives are desperately needed to challenge centralized energy conglomerates’ proposals for a revival of nuclear power, so-called “clean coal,” oil drilling in wilderness regions, and conversion of farmland and forests to biofuel production. These destructive practices are unlikely to be stopped as long we cling to the assumption that we can continue to have endless growth.

Smart Growth Versus Sustainability

"You will change nothing until you change the way that money works."

-- M. King Hubbert, author of the mathematical model to predict Peak Oil

Sustainability refers to practices that can be continued generation after generation. This word has been co-opted by polluters trying to confuse the public to ensure continued unsustainable extraction, the basis of the modern industrial economic paradigm.

Sustainability does not mean nice words or good intentions—it refers to practices that your great-great-great-great grandchildren will still be able to do once the oil is gone. By that standard, virtually no one in North America is living “sustainably,” with the exception of Amish and some Native American/First Nations communities.

Most of the best practices marketed as “sustainable” are merely efficiency. A 100 mile-per-gallon car is an efficient use of non-renewable petroleum, but it is not sustainable. Most forms of renewable energy are a means of using non-renewable resources (oil for plastics and transport, minerals) to capture sunlight, wind, etc. It is hard to envision a successful transition from our current industrial paradigm to true sustainability, but honesty is critical for designing any successful outcomes.

“Smart Growth,” sometimes called “Sustainable Growth,” is another mantra of pseudo-environmentalism. This oxymoronic slogan ignores the realities of overpopulation and overconsumption.

The first politician to use the term “Smart Growth” was Maryland Governor Parris Glendening (1994-2002), a Democrat. In 1997, he embraced the term at the height of his campaign to promote construction of the Inter County Connector (ICC) superhighway, part of the long-planned Outer Beltway around Washington. This policy claimed to refocus public subsidies away from sprawling outer suburbs to reinvest in urban areas, but it also allowed connector roads between designated growth areas—a loophole large enough for the entire Outer Beltway. “Smart Growth” was embraced by the foundation-funded environmental groups but scorned by grassroots organizers who saw it as a distraction from the Governor’s superhighway plans. This “greenwash” (the false claim of environmentalism) did not succeed in approving the project, since in 1998 the FHWA quietly concluded that the ICC would not withstand a legal challenge, and the approval process stalled.

“Smart Growth” is an example of how highway funds are used for social engineering. The Glendening plan directed public subsidies toward the most urban parts of the State which are the most Democratic constituencies. In contrast, outer suburb-edge cities and rural areas are more Republican and use more gasoline per-capita than Democratic. Oil consumption is a variable that shows whether a community is more likely to vote for the D’s or for the R’s.

In 2006, former Governor Glendening is now president of the Smart Growth Leadership Institute and a board member of Smart Growth America, a national coalition of organizations advocating alternatives to urban sprawl. If the Democrats are allowed to take over the White House in 2008, look for Glendening to take a key post promoting “Smart Growth.”

The current Republican governor of Maryland revived the ICC, and the Bush administration made it a national priority (since it would connect military and intelligence contractors throughout the Washington area with key federal facilities, especially Fort Meade, home to the National Security Agency). As of April 2006, the FHWA is about to approve the ICC and environmental group’s plan to sue in order to block construction through parks and neighborhoods.

New Land Use and Economic Paradigms Needed

Most who promote “Smart Growth” have good intentions, but this paradigm is an inadequate examination, since it only looks at personal transportation issues and ignores many of the other ecological impacts of cities. Whether people live in apartment buildings served by public transit or dispersed edge cities, they use the same amount of energy to grow and transport the food they eat. Dense urban areas have an ecological “footprint” that is many times larger than the size of its metropolitan region, and require the extraction of raw materials needed to keep the City fed, lit, heated and economically vibrant.

"Smart Growth" won't do much to keep metropolitan areas fed after the peak of petroleum is past. It might keep some farmland near cities from being paved—but urban agriculture will be needed to address food shortages in the future—which is in contradiction to "Smart Growth's" insistence on greater density in cities. It's hard to have community gardens when cities get too dense, although rooftop gardens are a practical way to supplement urban diets.

A new form of urban planning is needed to integrate transportation and land-use planning with ecological footprint analyses. Most ecological efforts to reduce car use and create more livable cities have stressed density as a solution to the transportation crisis, but overbuilt neighborhoods still require lots of delivery trucks bringing in food from distant farms. A genuine solution would balance neighborhood density, intelligent urban design, converting lawns and parking lots to gardens and other efforts to make cities become more locally oriented in their consumption.

Steady state economics are a prerequisite for any sensible strategy to achieve a harmonious balance with the natural world to plan beyond the era of cheap oil. M. King Hubbert pointed out that the solutions required abandoning the economic paradigm of growth and shifting toward steady state economics. Several articles about this are linked to

One analogy for a steady state economy is an old-growth forest ecosystem. A definition of a mature forest is a system where growth and decay are in balance. The total tonnage of biomass may remain consistent in a given area, but life continues to be dynamic for individual species. A forest in balance is still a dynamic place for the mouse being eaten by an owl, or for a sapling feeding on the soil created by trees that fell over decades ago.

“Smart Growth” cannot solve exponential growth, overshoot, Peak Oil, and other resource depletions. “Smart Growth” is riding First Class on the Titanic, ecological destruction with good taste.

In nature, endless growth is the ideology of the cancer cell. A truly sustainable society would mimic natural processes, since we live on a finite planet and must change our politics, economics, and psychology to adjust to this reality.

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