Hank Dittmar directs the Transportation and Quality of Life Campaign of the Surface Transportation Policy Project, a coalition of environmental and community groups working to reform transportation policy.

Tuesday, 1 Jun 1999

LAS VEGAS, N.M.

It’s been just about a year since my wife and I packed up our house and our infant twins and moved from Washington, D.C. to northern New Mexico. I’d just completed a five-year stint as executive director of the Surface Transportation Policy Project, a big coalition of national and grassroots environmentalists, social justice activists, and community-minded people who’d sought since 1990 to reform the nation’s transportation policies.

Seeking his fortune in Las Vegas.

STPP works on three aspects of transportation reform: addressing the direct environmental consequences of driving (air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, death and injuries to drivers and pedestrians); the direct environmental and human consequences of road-building (the destruction of neighborhoods, towns, scenic and historic resources, the loss of farmland and habitat, and the noise and water pollution from roads); and the indirect impacts from land development and traffic induced by roads — metropolitan and rural sprawl.

My last day at work in D.C. was the day that both houses of Congress passed the Conference Report on the mammoth TEA-21 (the transportation policy and spending blueprint for the nation for the next six years) so it was a fitting time to blow town. We’d succeeded in defending and even extending the reform efforts begun in 1991 with the bill’s predecessor, so that virtually none of the money in the $217 billion bill was dedicated for new or wider roads and increased amounts were dedicated to transit, bicycle, and pedestrian transportation, historic preservation, scenic and historic resource protection, and fixing existing roads. At the same time, the bill dedicated more money to transportation than ever before, and the flip side of the fact that it wasn’t dedicated to new roads was that many of the state highway agencies still wanted to spend it on expanding existing roads. Few states were ready to use this flexibility in positive ways, and the next challenge clearly was to get out of D.C. and devote my energies to the grassroots level.

So I’m now directing STPP’s Transportation and Quality of Life Campaign from an office in Las Vegas, New Mexico, and living in a mountain village off a dirt road. I joke that the first step in our Quality of Life campaign was to improve my own quality of life, and I’ve certainly managed that, although the balance of travel and a new family has proved an uneasy one at times.

Here in New Mexico, we’ve seen the good and the bad of the new transportation bill. On the plus side, our local 1889 Santa Fe Depot, host to daily Amtrak service, is getting restored as a train/bus terminal and visitor’s center thanks to TEA-21’s transportation enhancement center. And our savvy Citizens’ Committee for Historic Preservation got a $315,000 scenic byways grant to develop an interpretive center about the Santa Fe Trail and to do a feasibility study for bike and pedestrian access along the trail, which goes right through town. Similar projects are springing up all over the state, including light rail in Albuquerque and commuter rail in Santa Fe!

On the debit side, the state used new authority to bond against future federal receipts, to finance some 500 miles of new or wider roads. I’ve been hearing from citizens all over the state. In the little town of Hondo, citizens are concerned about a proposal to widen a lightly traveled two-lane road from Ruidoso to Roswell (for “economic development” purposes). In historic Rancho de Taos, a four-lane highway threatens a little community and the church made famous by Georgia O’Keefe. And in the Raton Pass, which connects New Mexico and Colorado along I-25, needed maintenance has ballooned into a big project, which threatens the Santa Fe Trail overlook, and perhaps some of the trail ruts.

This week will be a busy one for me as I juggle the local, statewide, and national aspects of my work. Today, I’m working on a proposal to use the train depot revitalization as a catalyst for revitalizing the entire railroad district here in Las Vegas, a town with over 900 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. Later in the week I travel: first to Denver for a much-needed effort to develop an urban/metropolitan agenda for the presidential elections; and then to Milwaukee for the annual meeting of the Congress for New Urbanism, a gathering of the best minds in design and place-making that is responsive to people and nature. Glad to have you all along!