What Herring, an environmental lobbyist, is talking about is the quaint Southern device called "developmental highways." These roads rank right up there with grits, guns and the "true" Georgia flag as unassailable shrines to the way good folks do things here.
Maybe the correct word for the roads isn't "device" but "artifice" -- a subtle trick. Developmental highways are supposed to be horns of plenty, showering economic benefits galore on communities and states. In reality, that's a dangerous illusion.
And, nowhere is that sham more obvious than in the hills of Bartow, Cherokee, Forsyth and Gwinnett counties -- the site of the proposed Northern Arc, which with 58 to 65 miles (depending on whose cronies are grandly enriched by the final site selection) at a $2.4 billion price tag is the granddaddy of developmental roads.
Herring's "white trash highway" definition doesn't exactly apply, for two reasons. The north side of the metro area doesn't face declining population. In fact, developers know that under their socialist form of economics -- the people pay for infrastructure so those developers can reap exorbitant profits -- the road will dramatically accelerate growth.
The second difference is that the folks who oppose the road aren't the struggling hangers-on near ghost towns in south Georgia who hope a four-lane running from Voidville to East Black Hole will lure a mill. Indeed, the epicenter of anti-Arc rabble-rousing is Forsyth's Polo Fields neighborhood, which as the name eloquently implies, is pure country club, debutante and Republican turf.
Just as shit happens, so does population grow. Some estimates project the boom soon will be more of a blast, and that the Southeast will see population grow by as much as 65 percent between 1990 and 2025.
Meanwhile, we've been paving over raw land in the metro area at the rate of about 40 acres a day. That isn't going to stop, however much we wish.
Nor, to my mind, should the debate over the Northern Arc be solely along the usual sprawl vs. mobility paradigm.
If that were the only debate, the road crowd would win. Here's my logic: Mass transportation doesn't work -- unless you make transit so comfortable, clean and efficient that great masses of a workforce can use it. MARTA simply doesn't take you where you need to go. We don't have big concentrations of people all going to the same places -- only 6 percent of the region's workers labor in downtown.
Right now, mass transportation in metro Atlanta accounts for only about 2.5 percent of daily trips, and although more than half of regional dollars are designated for transit, the estimates are that those huge gobs of cash will nudge up the number of trips by only 1 percent.
Transit always -- always -- costs more and carries fewer riders than its hucksters promise. So, despite what the anti- automobile zealots rant, we need roads, even if we drive gas-efficient or, one day hopefully, no-gas cars.
The problem -- in terms of sprawl-mobility -- is not that the Northern Arc is too much. Rather, it's too little. There should be several high volume corridors between I-285 and the Arc, intersecting with numerous north-south main drags. Rather than concentric circles -- the typical mindset of Georgia road planners -- we should look at a grid system of interlocking expressways.
But, of course, we'll never build them.
The anti-Arc advocates are right, but they're wrong. The Arc won't materially decrease gridlock. Trucks, for example, account for 27 percent of the trips on I-285; if the Arc is built, that number will decrease to only 26 percent. Big deal.
But that's not the fault of the Arc. It's merely that the entire road system is woefully inadequate -- and that fact isn't going to change much with or without the Northern Arc.
Arc foes understand this, or at least part of the argument. The proposed highway "won't help the traffic pile-ups on 400, I-85 or the Perimeter," says Polo Fields resident Gerry Conway, a leader of the Northern Arc Task Force. "There are roads here we need improved now."
The Arc's arch-enemies are often accused of NIMBY thinking -- not in the back yards of these well-heeled suburbanites, please. There's probably some of that. But as the Georgia Conservancy's Michael Halicki says, "The Northern Arc has mobilized not just the NIMBY people but an entire region."
OK, the masses are aroused. What next?
Let's flip back to the beginning of this missive. What is it about the Arc that is so really, truly, unalterably horrible? That question brings us to economics and Gov. Roy Barnes.
In the plantation mentality that suffices for boardroom strategy in this state, developmental highways offer developers the opportunities to grab some quick cash. And, as long as America wasn't competing with Mexico and Bangladesh to see who can pay workers the lowest wages, we had a few factories along those four-lane roads to nowhere. "Globalization" has encouraged corporate plunderers to fold their Georgia tents and move their sweatshops to the Third World.
Bryan Hager of the Sierra Club makes the point that as the cotton economy evaporated in the South, the idea of developmental highways caught on. A widget manufacturer might set up shop in a rural county -- as long as the company's trucks didn't have to bump along a gravel road, but had easy, multi-lane roads.
With only a slight difference, developmental highways in urban areas opened up virgin land for a different sort of factory -- the home-building and mall-building industry.
The Northern Arc isn't really a solution to traffic, because no politician in this state has the cojones to say the truth: We either have to halt growth or spend gazillions and gazillions of dollars on roads (or transit). If we do neither, we sit in endless traffic jams and breathe toxic air.
So, the motive behind the road isn't to fix something. The real reasons behind the highway's Dracula-like refusal to die are both simple and complex. It will serve as a race track for big rigs hauling carpets from Dalton. More corporate welfare. That's the "simple."
Now for the "complex." The Arc is supposed to have only a few interchanges -- and only with other expressways. There are supposed to be wide buffers. There are supposed to be real land-use plans.
Uh-uh. Those promises are pure spin. A little bribery here, a few campaign contributions there -- and soon you'll see interchanges every mile along the Arc. Big boxes, strip centers and Ugly Acres subdivisions will grow faster than kudzu. In the process, we'll ruin a little more of what's really good about Georgia.
There are some visionary thinkers who project alternatives to Barnes' economic development passion. The Sierra Club's Hager, for example, suggests a radical turn that would foster timbering and eco-tourism as alternatives to the factories that companies such as Sony built (and abandoned) in rural areas.
And, of course, a wise governor and other leaders would invest heavily in solving the transit issues that already exist -- intensely building roads and transit alternatives inside the core metro area, rather than moonscaping pristine rural areas. One simple change would stop the wholesale destruction of rural Georgia -- make developers pay for the infrastructure their projects require (e.g., "You want a road, Bubba, you pay for it").
The Arc is generating so much antipathy that it will be beat -- temporarily. "We've got 1,500 active people in our group," says Jeff Anderson, a Forsyth resident who heads the Northern Arc Task Force. "There aren't too many left who support it. We'll win this one."
But things ain't over 'til they're over. The people with big bucks at stake -- land speculators with political ties, developers with political ties, road builders with political ties -- will hibernate for a while, and renew the war.
Senior Editor John Sugg can be reached at 404-614-1241 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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"I'm buying two Hummers."
Keep your sex life to yourself, buddy.