Learning from I-26

[Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the February 1992 edition of Green Line, the monthly predecessor of Mountain Xpress.]

If I-26 is any indication, highway boosters are far more organized than proponents of alternative transportation, who usually react too late.

Starting in 1987, I-26 boosters in WNC had a two-year head start on opponents of the road, who didn’t get organized until 1989 [See “Dancing to a Tennessee waltz”].

One key tactic in the boosters’ strategy was using the Transportation Improvement Program’s public hearing process to get the highway listed as priority project for North Carolina. The TIP is a yearly list of state highway priorities. Public hearings to determine which roads should be funded are held each spring.

“[The 1.26 Corridor Association] would all show up [at the TIP hearings] and make their spiel [for I-26),”said Al Avant, TIP coordinator for the NC-DOT.

Well-organized highway boosters use the TIP forums for local lobbying. They prepare brochures, bring in speakers from outlying communities, and present statistics showing the benefits of a desired highway, according to Avant.

Once the highway is listed on the TIP, it can be moved to a higher priority through additional lobbying, letter-writing and organizing, he said.

By contrast, advocates of alternative transportation usually react to highway proposals long after the projects are high on the TIP and are therefore harder to defeat.

“[Environmentalists] need to let the I-26 project be a lesson [to get organized sooner]” said David Wheeler, founder of the Katuah Journal, a monthly conservation magazine. “Everybody was too overwhelmed by the sacred nature of the project.”

Another group opposed to the new interstate, the citizens’ conservation group Western North Carolina Alliance didn’t organize around highway issues until May 1990, according to Chip Smith, who chairs the Alliance’s Transportation Task Force.

At a spring 1990 TIP meeting, the Alliance handed out a one-page flyer titled “I-26 Corridor: What will it really do?” said Smith. The flyer called attention to the hidden costs of building a new interstate corridor through unspoiled farm land and national forest.

Proponents of alternative transportation, such as mass transit, should communicate their views to legislators and lobbyists, said state Rep. Paul Luebke, D-Durham, who is a member of the legislative public transit study committee. “The 1991 Intermodal Act [which allows states greater freedom in the use of federal highway funds] is good news for mass transit but only if people get involved and lobby for alternatives to highways,” he said.

Bill Holman, a lobbyist for the Conservation Council of North Carolina, advocates in the General Assembly for alternative transportation.

Concerned citizens can also attend the TIP meetings. The public hearing for the 1992 TIP will be this spring. For a list of highway projects on the 1991 TIP, call Mary Helen Duke at the Land-of-Sky Regional Council at (704) 254-8131.

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