Greenhouse gas emissions chart
The latest (2018) state level greenhouse gas emissions chart shows that the transportation sector emissions are the largest by far, and increasing. Residential emissions are also increasing. Increased suburban and rural sprawl (high emissions per home) is directly linked to car-centric, interstate widening. Credit: Contributed / CT DOT

In 2022, as part of the CT Department of Transportation’s bill, there was draft language that would have required large projects to estimate their contribution or reduction of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions and use those projections to guide the state’s transportation strategy. The transportation sector is by far the largest contributing sector to the state’s climate change emissions. There needs to be a transportation-involved strategy to meet Connecticut’s greenhouse gas reduction mandates. We have known for years that building wider interstates induces more driving, increases pressure to pave over suburban and rural green spaces, and overall leads to increased emissions. Somehow, that important draft language was stripped from the final bill that passed into law.

Without that step to evaluate climate impact in their process, CT DOT continues to start and plan for interstate “congestion reduction” projects. That means they are adding lanes and providing for more free-flowing interstate car travel at rush hour. One pitfall of expensive congestion reduction projects is that induced demand causes more driving trips and continued sprawl. The congestion typically returns in just a few years, with an overall increase in polluting tailpipe emissions. We have also learned in recent years that flexible schedules and a significant percentage of folks telecommuting at least some days has changed transportation patterns. Flexible work arrangements have given us more tools than widening highways to combat the frustrations of congestion and traffic jams.

Induced Demand – When roadways are expanded to meet higher capacities of traffic, traffic volumes will rise and congestion will quickly return to similar levels. (source)

There are immediate side effects to highway widening. Congestion is temporarily relieved on the newly expanded interstate, but it can then stack up in nearby cities, neighborhoods, and town centers that are forced to facilitate more low-occupancy car trips. Many cities in Connecticut have already been bulldozed and dominated by interstates, overly-wide state routes, surface-parking craters, and sterile parking garages. The hollowing out of Connecticut cities and town centers was, in part, driven by the car-centric investments at the state level and sprawling land-use policies that historically encouraged the development of open land rather than infill, town center, and transit-oriented development.

Rural housing signage in North Carolina
Cycling past hundreds of acres of pine forest dunes bulldozed for rural housing far south of Wilmington, North Carolina. The North Carolina DOT is still widening highways in and around the city. It is hard to find a safe crosswalk. Obviously, the author added the sarcastic “sprawl” to the pop-up neighborhood sign. Credit: Anthony Cherolis / CTNewsJunkie

Even when the transportation agency is completing an interstate safety or maintenance project, the standard approach is to design for increased future vehicle throughput, 10% to 20% higher. For example, the New Mix I-84 and Route 8 interchange in Waterbury is being redesigned for 225,000 average daily trips, up from 190,000. That is an assumed growth of 18%. That assumption causes CT DOT to add expensive lanes to the main corridor and to on/off ramps. 

How can CT DOT in mid-2022 assume year-after-year, constant increases for interstate driving when they were given an executive order on Dec 16, 2021 by Gov. Ned Lamont to set a 2030 reduction target? Those extra lanes on the ramps and main corridor do not just affect the stability of our civil society on the planet, they cost a lot of taxpayer dollars. The construction-industrial complex wants to preserve their highway widening gravy train as long as that machine will keep pumping dollars into design and construction contracts. This is not some green hippie issue, it is also about a fiscally sustainable transportation system.

Image of text
Excerpt from the Dec. 16, 2021, executive order by Gov. Ned Lamont instructing the CT DOT to set a 2030 target for reducing vehicle miles traveled. Credit: Contributed / CT DOT

Starting and planning new highway widening projects directly and intentionally contravenes Gov. Lamont’s executive order to set a target for reducing vehicle miles traveled (VMT). Now, a full 10 months later, there is not a declared 2030 target and the agency continues to steer billions of dollars into interstate projects that will spur decades of increased driving, increased air pollution, more rural sprawl, and increasing greenhouse gas emissions. Investing in highway widening while also investing in rail and transit is anti-strategic. Those investments work against each other. I asked CT DOT what their plan was to respond to the executive order, and this was the response from Josh Morgan, Communications Manager:

“Now that CTDOT has started to chip away at our historic low staffing levels following recent retirements, we have accelerated examination of the most impactful ways to reduce Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) using actual metrics to inform our actions, while also administering the new federal programs focused on reducing greenhouse gases. While we could have selected a target number without any rationale behind it, we have instead decided to spend the time to do a thoughtful analysis of what reductions could be achieved with specific investments. VMT is a product of many variables, most significantly decades of land use decisions by many entities, and VMT reduction is just one small piece of the much larger greenhouse gas reduction puzzle.” Josh Morgan, CT DOT Communications Manager

There is no mention of when CT DOT will be setting that 2030 target for a reduction in vehicle miles traveled. Curiously, those “historic low staffing levels” do not seem to have affected their ability to start construction on and plan future highway widening projects. For reference, the 2020 Governor’s Council on Climate Change Mitigation Report (pg. 143) recommended a 5% reduction in vehicle miles traveled for 2030. That seems like an achievable goal, especially with a post-Covid understanding of how many work trips can switch to telecommuting. That said, a reduction in low-occupancy driving trips and shift to other travel modes gets harder and harder to reach as the state continues to put huge investments into highway widening.

What do Connecticut residents think about highway widening and rural sprawl? In late 2019 while I was working on the Transport Hartford Academy program, we ran a statewide survey on transportation and development topics. With almost 1,000 responses and a mix of urban, suburban, and rural participation, here is a snapshot. We shared the survey results and summary presentation with CT DOT and several legislators, showing that there was public support for a more environmentally and economically viable path with more infill and transit-oriented development. The key is looking at legislation and policy in both land use and transportation, understanding that they are integrally connected.

Results from the statewide CT Transportation Future Survey (conducted in late 2019) provides solid leads to legislators and state department commissioners looking to reduce tailpipe emissions while listening to the needs of voters. Credit: Contributed / Transport Hartford Academy at the Center for Latino Progress

What can you do?

Ask CT DOT to close the Whitehead Highway Prospect Street on/off ramps next to the Hartford UConn campus and Downtown Hartford Public Library. These lightly used ramps create a dangerous situation right next to apartments and what should be a walkable urban neighborhood. Send an email to Kevin Burnham and to Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin.

Anthony Cherolis is a former aerospace engineer that co-founded BiCi Co. and the Transport Hartford Academy. He writes about transportation, development, and environmental topics. Anthony lives in Indianapolis, Indiana and takes an annual cross country bike tour to explore cities, towns, rural America, and beyond. Between bike tours, he enjoys working as a bike mechanic and non-profit communications consultant.

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of or any of the author's other employers.