- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 13, 2000

Thanks to road-blocking political maneuvering by area Democrats and their allies on the environmentalist left, the Beltway won't be expanded as proposed any time soon. A "full-fledged review" of plans to widen the Beltway from eight to 12 lanes in certain high-traffic areas will now take place and that includes red tape-wrapped "environmental impact" studies of the effect on supposed "wetlands" along the proposed areas of construction.

The net result will be another delay potentially putting off any significant improvement of the much-choked regional transportation artery for several years. The draft study won't be completed until early next year with the final version not expected before fall of 2001. After that, there will almost surely be legal challenges from the same coterie of "zero-growth" environmental activists requiring more studies that will put off construction for another few years. So the Beltway, as it exists today, is not likely to change much over the next several years, if ever huge increases in vehicle traffic and population in the outlying Washington suburbs notwithstanding.

"We're claiming victory," exulted Stewart Schwartz of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, one of the groups opposed to adding significantly to existing road capacity. More roads, the Coalition says, would only add to the area's "sprawl." Instead of doing something about the state of the paralytic, obsolescent and dangerous Beltway, the group sings the praises of pie-in-the-sky "public transportation" improvements. Mr. Schwartz had the support of a local Democratic political official, Fairfax County Board of Supervisors chief Katherine K. Hanley, who put together a task force whose object was to push for a wider review that would take environmental issues, such as they are, into account.

One has to wonder, though, which is better for the environment: A vast sea of gridlocked cars, their idling engines spitting out pollution and burning gas pointlessly or smoother flowing traffic, with cars operating more efficiently, and therefore polluting less? And as for area "wetlands" supposedly threatened by a wider Beltway, well, paving over a few swampy, garbage-strewn ditches isn't likely to precipitate the apocalypse. Remember that according to federal regulations, a "wetland" is often not much more than exactly that a sometimes-moist ditch, culvert or patch of grass. We're not talking about the Florida Everglades here. Is saving a puddle next to a jersey barrier adjacent to a shopping mall worth more gridlock, frustration and air pollution? One hopes the region's elected officials don't think so.

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