On Record – July 2009

A false supposition

A documentary last year on the Adirondack Mountains in upper New York brought out an irony faced in communities around the nation. The setting was a town hall meeting; the topic up for discussion: a proposed ski lodge on the outskirts of town.

Those for the project cited the benefits, the foremost being year-round jobs. These types of jobs are scarce in this region, which typically experiences a boom tourist season then settles down for a long, snowy winter. The ski lodge, proponents said, would spread the wealth throughout the rest of the year. People bring prosperity.

The other side argued the development would deforest a prime piece of virgin land on the outskirts of town. These people liked the community’s size, its pronounced seasons, its heavily forested environment. While the summer tourists were welcome – in part because they were essential to the survival of the area – extending the season and thus increasing the population would bring additional traffic and pollution. People bring problems.

This double edged sword is nothing new. My route to and from work takes me through an area that’s experiencing its own mini-boom. What was considered “country” 10 years ago is now clogged with commuter traffic. And despite the dire housing market, a 50-unit development on one of the busiest corners of this trip continues to have a newly framed house every couple of months.

Which is part of the reason the state is increasing the capacity of the two roads surrounding this development. For now, it’s adding an additional turning lane, but it’s obvious that won’t stave off the problem for long. Anyone with knowledge of the area knows within the next five years this T-intersection will be the site of two four-lane roads.

Which brings us back to the Adirondacks, where the debate was, “if they build it, they’ll most surely come, but is that what we want?” In many parts of America, the “if they build it” part has already been decided, or quickly will be when the economy turns around. And yet there are some who argue that increasing infrastructure capacity to support those already-made decisions is encouraging people to “abandon” cities by providing a freeway out.

Communities think they are faced with the question of whether additional capacity enables population flow or whether population patterns prompt the need for more capacity. More succinctly, which came first, the road or the people?

This people-versus-progress assumption is false, because it works both ways. People prompt progress and progress prompts the relocation of people. While we have to make wise choices, especially as we try to support the 306 million people this nation has now, we don’t have to make either/or choices.

The U.S. Census Bureau projects our population will increase to 382 million in 2050 – more than a 50 percent increase from what’s now regarded as the gangbuster 1990s. As we attempt to serve this explosion, let’s not get sidelined into a useless chicken-or-egg argument.