Iowa DOT Embraces the Logic of Smart Decline

Iowa’s Department of Transportation director Paul Trombino may have made national history this week when he announced his state needed to downsize it’s current network of roads, highways, and freeways.

Like the saying goes, government is always at least a generation behind society. Nowhere is this more true than Federal and State DOTs.

For Trombino to publicly admit the preternatural obsession with growth and expansion of highways in his state was in error, well, this is huge. But he went a step further, calling for an actual decline in excess roadways.

Excerpted here from an Urban Land Institute talk, Iowa’s DOT director in his own words:

[We have] 114,000 lane miles, 25,000 bridges, 4,000 miles of rail. I said this when we were talking about fuel tax increases: it’s not affordable. Nobody’s going to pay. We’re not going to pay to rebuild that entire system. And my personal belief is that the entire system is unneeded. And so the reality is, the system is going to shrink. There’s nothing I have to do. Bridges close themselves. Roads deteriorate and go away. That’s what happens. And reality is, for us, let’s not let the system degrade and then we’re left with sorta whatever’s left. Let’s try to make a conscious choice – it’s not going to be perfect, I would agree it’s going to be complex and messy – but let’s figure out which ones we really want to keep.

Damn, son!

This game-changing statement’s significance can’t be undersold.

Like most bureacracies, transportation departments operate under the pathological belief that progress is predicated from expotential growth, regardless of actual demand. We’ve seen this play out over and over, where the incentivisation of highways creates addiction to an automobile monopoly, while worsening congestion in the process.  

To justify this freeway crusade, DOTs cling to badly outdated traffic projections of a future that hasn’t – and likely won’t – ever materialize. Oregon’s DOT tried and failed to play this game when pushing the 12 lane CRC freeway expansion. For years they ignored this reality: Americans now live in a post-peak car use era where increasing numbers of citizens are ditching their cars to live in denser urban habitats where bikes and public transport are preferred commuting modes.

Now, Michigan’s DOT is going for the same con-job. This time they’re using a mask of ‘safety upgrades’ to hide the true intent of a $2 billion dollar overhaul to I-94 through Detroit: a multiple lane expansion project expected to drag on for over a decade.

Ironically, while MDOT looks to expand I-94, there may soon be a plan to dismantle the unneeded I-375.

As if somehow billions for highway expansions even existed in Michigan’s budget, any such money would certainly drain other 21st century projects in a metropolis devoid of a regional transit system. This brand of austerity destroys equity: subsidizing suburban car commutes yet again at the expense of those who struggle for life in the city.

Detroit is already a town embracing Smart Decline in some ways. In others, the Super-Size me mentality that helped create the housing crisis plaguing Detroit hasn’t quite died. Still, there are intelligent people opposing the widening of I-94 who understand automobile dominance is withering fast.


Protest sign: 1970s

Even the Ford Motor Co. has admitted the future is in bikes, though they’re apparently struggling to “figure out” how to make bikes their future.

With such a bold vision of what a smarter network of roads will look like, we should ask ourselves where else smart decline will benefit society.

Clearly with so many ecological cataclysms on the horizon, and with no stopping human population growth, the smartest kids in the room are going to have to find other ways to tighten our consumption belts.