From the Interstate, Could a Smart Grid Grow?

­What if we used our 46,000 miles of highway as the backbone of a new 21st-century infrastructure?

Christmas comes 11 months early this year: January 20. And I’ve been making lists. Granted, President Obama isn’t St. Nick, and given the hundreds of billions that we’ve been throwing at Wall Street, it’s unlikely that we’re going to get most of the things we want. But the incoming president has been talking up a huge economic-stimulus package and saying he’ll “rebuild our crumbling roads and bridges.” Infrastructure is suddenly a buzzword, so alluring that it could be the name of a new men’s cologne. People keep talking about the WPA as if it were the latest gizmo from Steve Jobs instead of an old program from Franklin Roosevelt. It has been so long since we could expect anything at all from our federal government that it’s hard not to want a lot. So let me tell you about the things I want.

Have you ever looked at the artist Catherine Opie’s freeway-overpass photos? Her long, narrow, sepia-toned images reveal the beauty of this network of roads. We’ve lived with superhighways for more than 50 years and don’t even see them anymore. We certainly don’t think of them as aesthetic objects. In fact, we don’t think about the interstate system at all, except when a significant chunk of it plunges into a river. But the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, created when Ike signed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, was a symbol of everything that was both right and wrong about this country. That we were able to plan and execute something so ambitious—more than 46,000 miles of highway—seems, at this juncture, wondrous. Of course, the system undermined our cities, encouraged suburbanization and sprawl, and solidified our dependence on the automobile. This tends to undercut the glory of the achievement.

But it’s time for us to look at the interstate system not as an aging network of highways in need of repair or replacement but instead as we might look at a navigable river. Congressman Earl Blumenauer, of Portland, Oregon, a noted infrastructure advocate, says the system represents “a tremendous national untapped resource.” It encompasses a lot of land. Funds were appropriated at the outset for the purchase of two million acres; according to one estimate, the system actually takes up 40 acres per mile, or 1.87 million acres. But what if we could make those highways beautiful, not by removing bill­boards, as Lady Bird Johnson did in the 1960s, but by using the corridors for more than moving cars and trucks? What if we thought of them as the backbone of a new, more diverse 21st-century transportation system? “It’s time for a different vision,” Blumenauer says. “And a principle for that is how we coax more out of existing resources.”

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This is not a radical idea. Obviously, the interstate, with its generous rights-of-way, is a prime spot for new rail lines, both high-speed intercity trains and commuter rail. In the Bay Area, BART trains to outlying suburbs often run in the median strip. The same is true in Chicago and Blumenauer’s Portland. There are similar plans all over the country, including one for a Midwest system that would use high-speed trains and commuter rail to link major cities in nine states; and a scheme in Colorado to run high-speed rail along I-25 and I-70. The recently opened New Mexico Rail Runner connects Santa Fe and Albuquerque along an interstate corridor. It makes sense that rail would go where the people are, and over the last half century, people have settled along highways. But while there are many regional rail projects around the country, there is no national plan. As Shelley Poticha, president and CEO of Reconnecting America, a transit-advocacy group, points out, “One thing that would need to change is we would have to ask the federal government to think in an integrated, interdisciplinary way.” In layman’s terms: the highway planners and the rail planners would have to be in the same room.

Maybe the interstate system has a role to play in remaking our energy infrastructure. On Repower­, an offshoot of the Al Gore–inspired We Campaign, you can find the argument for building a “smart grid,” a new, unified national system for distributing electricity that would incorporate far-flung power sources, such as wind farms and individual rooftop solar arrays, and apportion them efficiently. It’s described as “[a]n interstate highway system for electricity.” I initially assumed that that was a metaphor, just as the Internet used to be thought of as the information superhighway. Then I read a bit further and came across this: “These power lines can be above ground, buried underground, under freeway medians—there are many options.”

Again, the real interstate is a network linking our population centers, and if a new grid needs to be built, it might make sense to piggyback on those well-defined corridors. The proposed smart grid presumes that we’ll soon have “a massive national fleet of clean plug-in cars.” Plug-in hybrids will be capable of two-way “vehicle to grid” exchanges. You’ll plug them in to charge them, but they will also store power that the grid can draw on dur­ing the day, when you’re not driving. A park-and-ride lot then becomes a de facto electrical substation. New rail lines will require electricity and could, if hybrid technology is put to work, conceivably generate electricity and participate in a novel give-and-take approach to power. Additionally, Blumenauer suggests “using the right-of-way for a solar array, which can allow the electrical needs of the highways to be self-­generating.” Now you would need the highway planners, rail planners, and energy planners sitting at the same table.

And one more thing: say we reimagine the interstate system so that it becomes not just a route for cars and trucks but an intermodal-transportation-and-energy corridor. That should be incentive enough to rethink the nature of development around highway interchanges. Anyone who has done any long-distance driving harbors deep ambivalence about these provisional places. Yes, they’re specifically designed to allow you to get off the highway, gas up, use the restroom, grab a burger, and continue onward with the fewest possible complications. Some of these interchanges have grown into what Joel Garreau called “edge cities”—dense, traffic-clogged jumbles of shopping centers, of-fices, and hotels. These asphalt landscapes now rep­resent planning ideas so discredited that even commercial developers don’t much care for them.

What I propose is that interchanges become hubs. Maybe you’re parking your hybrid, plugging it into the smart grid, and getting on a commuter train to go to work, or maybe you’re switching from a long-distance train to the local connector—or perhaps you’ve arrived by bicycle (have I mentioned bike lanes?). In any case, it might be nice if these interchanges were redeveloped to suit the needs of human beings rather than cars. Done right, these nonplaces could grow into neighborhoods, towns, or cities. And selling redevelopment rights at key interchanges might be a way of underwriting some of our sexy new infrastructure. “The right-of-way is extraordinarily valuable,” Blumenauer notes, “and being able to put the pieces together differently so that various modes and facilities play multiple roles is one of the most important discussions. It would be nice if it became the centerpiece of what the new administration and the next Congress do.”

So now we’d need an extra-large table with a lot of chairs—enough to seat agencies for highways, energy, rail, transportation, housing, and urban development. It would require a new way of thinking and appropriating funds. Congress would have to scramble its committee structure and legislate holistically. And that’s hard to picture. But at least we have an administration that seems smart enough to handle complexity. That, for now, may be the best present of all.

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