Protecting Neighborhoods From Poorly Planned Highways & Other Road Projects

In this webpage we’ll explain the approach CEDS has used with great success to preserve neighborhoods and the environment from poorly planned highways and other road projects.  If you’re concerned about a proposed road project anywhere in the U.S. contact CEDS at 410-654-3021 or for strategy advice.

Please don’t hesitate. Delay almost always decreases the likelihood of success.

While some new roads are truly necessary, many are proposed in a misguided attempt to solve congestion or other traffic issues. Frequently there are far better options for addressing these issues.

Strategies are outlined in this webpage for defeating harmful road projects and designing impacts out of those where the benefits greatly outweigh negative effects. The detail needed to implement these strategies is provided by other CEDS webpages and our free book, How To Win Land Development Issues.

Many folks opt to retain CEDS to perform an Initial Strategy Analysis. Following are two examples of our more detailed analyses of highway projects:

To learn how we’ve helped others win highway-road project battles visit our Successes webpage. If you’re concerned about a proposal to open your neighborhood street to more traffic then also see our Making Neighborhood Streets Safer webpage.

Most Highway Battles Are Won Politically, Not With Lawyers

There are two common myths about how to defeat a poorly planned highway-road project:

  1. The best strategy is to hire a lawyer to block a key permit, and
  2. This strategy frequently produces a victory.

Here are the facts dispelling both myths.

Most legal challenges focus on the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process. Review of documents from the U.S. General Accounting Office, the USEPA EIS Database, the Center for Environmental Excellence, and other sources show that very few of these challenges succeed in blocking a highway project. However, a number do result in changes that somewhat reduce highway impacts.

NEPA & Environmental Impact Statements

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) may require an Environmental Assessment (EA), an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), or a Finding Of No Significant Impact (FONSI) for any highway project funded in part with Federal dollars.  This can also be true for projects requiring Federal permits like those for wetland impacts from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or a NPDES wastewater treatment plant permit.  For further detail see A Citizen’s Guide to the National Environmental Policy Act.

Political Strategies Succeed Far More Frequently

The Wikipedia Highway revolts in the United States site lists many successes, the majority of which were won in a political arena, not just in the courts. For example, I-70 runs 2200 miles from Utah east to our home state of Maryland. An effort was made in the 1970s to extend I-70 through Baltimore. Thanks to an aggressive political campaign I-70 has ended west of the City for the past 50 years.

By “political campaign” we mean demonstrating that:

  1. Highway project impacts far exceed benefits,
  2. Other options will achieve the same benefits or more without so many negative effects, AND (most importantly)
  3. A large percentage of voters oppose the project and the number are growing.

The opposition must come from far more than a few advocacy organizations like environmental groups and nonprofits. While these organizations can defeat projects with that have weak political support, much more is needed once a highway proposal becomes widely viewed as necessary.

What a Successful Political Strategy Looks Like

Successful campaigns to defeat poorly planned highway projects have the following components in common:

  1. The message is positive,
  2. The focus is on a key decision-making elected official,
  3. The campaign mobilizes voter support throughout the key decision-maker’s electoral district,
  4. The campaign demonstrates that support is ever-expanding among voters who will be reminded of the official’s decision come the next election, and
  5. The campaign employs high-quality inside lobbying in negotiating with the key decision-maker.

Positive Message

It’s far easier to mobilize voter support around a message that’s positive rather than one of just stopping a poorly planned highway project. For example, in a recent CEDS campaign we mobilized widespread support for reserving the $3 billion a new highway would cost for options that would be far more effective in reducing congestion and making neighborhood streets safer. This message won the support of 23% of the 538 neighborhood groups representing one of the most populous and affluent counties in the U.S.

Key Decision-Making Elected Official

Successful campaigns always focus on an elected official since they are accountable to voters. Appointed agency directors exist to deflect flack from their elected boss. With most highway projects the key decision-making elected official is a council, legislative court, mayor, county executive, or a governor.

The official is targeted with a positive message such as…

We know Mayor Smith wants to make our highways safer and needs our support to use limited transportation tax-dollars for options that achieve this goal without causing all the harm resulting from the proposed road project. Let’s join together in showing Mayor Smith he has our support to do the right thing.

Widespread Support

Support must come from individual voters, not just groups representing a portion of the population. The support begins with those directly threatened by the proposed highway. Usually though these folks represent a small percentage of voters so it’s easy for a decision-maker to ignore their concerns. It is for this reason that the campaign must find creative ways of mobilizing support among voters throughout a city, county, or state. CEDS uses a number of methods which actually makes this easier than one might think. For further detail on these methods visit:

Electoral Consequences

A campaign must demonstrate to the key elected decision-maker that support for the positive message will continue to increase throughout their district up to the next election. Campaign leaders must also make it clear that they will remind voters just before the next election that the decision-maker either did or did not take the action called for in the positive message. Most advocacy groups are nonprofits which are prohibited from this form of electoral activity, which is why these groups alone are frequently ineffective in stopping a bad highway once highway proponents gain the upper hand.

Ongoing Negotiations

Communication with the key decision-maker must be ongoing throughout a campaign. The reason is that there can be a number of ways of achieving campaign goals which differ from the approach you and your supporters first advocate. These negotiations must be under the control of you and your supporters, not another organization which may have an agenda differing from yours.

For example, most highway battles are led initially by environmental groups. These groups may be tempted to settle from options that reduce air, land or water impacts without addressing the primary concerns of your supporters, like neighborhood street safety. However, these groups may have expertise, as well as lines of communication with a decision-maker, you need. Success is more likely if you can develop a commitment to a shared agenda and a leadership structure based on consensus.

Lasting Victory

A number of highways projects have been defeated more than once before finally being built. The Inter County Connector (ICC), outside Washington, D.C., is an example.

Originally proposed in the 1950s, the ICC Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process started then stopped twice until the highway was declared dead in the late 1990s. By that time though the perceived need had reached a point that ICC became an issue in the 2002 Maryland Governor’s race. The conservative, pro-ICC candidate won and ICC construction began a few years later (see ICC Timeline). While opposition by a large coalition of environmental and other nonprofit groups had defeated ICC twice, their influence alone could not overcome the political momentum for the ICC.

Expanding Public Support for Better Options

ICC is one of a number of highway projects that became reality despite the fact that other transportation options could achieve the alleged benefits at a lower cost. However, this fact was only known to the small percentage of voters the anti-ICC groups contacted. Had the groups conducted a far wider public education effort tied to issues of direct concern to voters then ICC might never have been built.

By “direct concern to voters” we mean issues such as health effects and neighborhood street safety. For example:

  • There’s a vast body of scientific evidence regarding the health effects of air pollution caused by most of us driving alone in cars.
  • As main roads become more congested drivers use neighborhood streets to bypass slow-moving traffic. This is part of the reason why our neighborhood streets have some of the highest pedestrian-cyclist injury rates of all roads.

Since most of us live on neighborhood streets in areas where traffic-caused air pollution is highest these impacts are far more likely to influence our voting decisions when compared to more esoteric issues like climate change or preserving some distant highly-regarded resource.

If a majority of voters knew that highways can exacerbate health effects and neighborhood street safety issues, while improved transit, complete streets, and traffic calming can minimize both, then support for new roads would dwindle. CEDS has had considerable success with this approach in a number localities across the U.S.

CEDS Strategy Analysis

The preceding is a simplified description of what frequently becomes a complex campaign strategy. Putting modesty aside, CEDS has probably had more experience putting these strategies together than most others active in the U.S. This is why the best way for your effort to begin is with a CEDS Initial Strategy Analysis. Following are two examples of our more detailed analyses:

Is A New Highway The Best Option?

In decades past, new highways were viewed as the best option for addressing traffic congestion and delay. This philosophy resulted in many new roads that opened vast areas of farm and forest land to development. As population grew so did traffic volume which resulting in congestion levels rivalling those that prompted the last spate of road-building.

Today, transportation and urban planning has shifted towards a philosophy of guiding new growth into existing developed areas where transportation needs can be met with transit, car-pooling, and new homes can be built near employment centers.

The following graphic provides one of the best comparisons of options for reducing congestion and delay.

The graph above depicts ten options for reducing congestion-caused delay in the Washington, D.C. region. CEDS was hired by those opposed to the Add’l North Bridge option which involved a new bridge over the Potomac River and 14-miles of new six-lane highway.

Note that the North Bridge option only reduced delay by 3% whereas a number of other options achieve far greater benefits, many without the need to add lanes to existing highways. For further detail see the report at:

Unfortunately, the old highway-first philosophy still prevails in many areas. In these localities analyses such as that depicted above are not available.

Fortunately, within the CEDS nationwide network we have professionals who can prepare low-cost analyses our clients can use to convince elected officials to have the more expensive reports prepared. Our experts can then ensure the reports honestly compare all reasonable alternations. Following is an example of how our extensive experience with highways and other projects allows CEDS to keep the process honest.

Keeping Route Selection Honest

How do you ensure that an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) highway routing study fairly analyzes all reasonable alignments to identify the best option?

Well, the first step is to understand how an analysis can be manipulated to select the route the applicant prefers vs. that which is best for the rest of us. With this understanding you can determine if the analysis was honest. And if not prove the flaw to decision-makers.

CEDS has created the Siting Game for your use in understanding how siting factors and other analysis variables can be manipulated to make one route appear preferable. The Excel-based Siting Game is posted at:

The Game uses a proposed transmission line to illustrate routing analysis biases. A number of routing factors (17) common to transmission line proposals are used and begins with values assigned to six candidate routes. When you have a moment try altering the siting factor values to see how easily one of the six candidate routes can be made to appear preferable to the other five.

To learn more about how these analyses work and how to keep them honest, see the Siting Game Excel worksheet labeled How the Siting Game Works.

Safeguarding Sensitive Land Uses

Many of those new to this business assume that certain land uses or features could never be impacted by a highway. While highway planners seek to avoid some features, there does not appear to be ones which pose absolute barriers.

The features that benefit from the greatest protection are those covered by Section 4(f) of the U.S. Department of Transportation Act of 1966, which are defined as:

“Section 4(f) properties include significant publicly owned public parks, recreation areas, and wildlife or waterfowl refuges, or any publicly or privately-owned historic site listed or eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.”

Before a highway can impact a Section 4(f) feature planners must show that all reasonable measures were used to avoid, minimize, then mitigate damage. Note that Section 4(f) only comes into play if a project requires federal funds or federal permits. The Section 4(f) analysis is usually carried out through the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process.

MPOs & Transportation Improvement Programs

The planning for most new highways and other major transportation projects is overseen by a Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO). Each MPO is required to prepare a Long-Range Statewide Transportation Plan that sets forth needs for the next 20 or so years and the best options for meeting these needs. The MPO then develops a Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) listing projects to be carried out over the next four years. The MPO plans begin with annual priority lists developed by local governments which are then incorporated into state plans. The state plans then inform the MPO plan and the TIP.

MPOs are governed by a board of elected officials. Successful political campaigns seek to influence the elected officials serving on MPO boards.