Don't put a new road through the Des Moines River Greenbelt

John Wenck, an outreach coordinator for the Department of Natural Resources, had a good guest opinion column in Monday’s Des Moines Register about why building a new road through the Des Moines River Greenbelt is a bad idea.

This road project used to be called the “MLK extension,” because it would extend Martin Luther King Drive north through the river greenbelt. A group of environmental advocates and interested citizens helped defeat that proposal years ago.

Now it has been revived as the “Northwest 26th Street extension,” which is the Ankeny street that would be extended south through the greenbelt to connect with MLK on the Des Moines side.

A new name does nothing to lessen the impact of this road. A Sierra Club “sprawl report” from the fall of 2000 had this to say:

Tearing down urban highways has brought new life to neighborhoods long hemmed-in by the roads. Unfortunately, Des Moines seems to be heading in the opposite direction with the proposed extension of Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway. This project will put a highway in what is now an urban green space and flood-control zone.

The Des Moines River Valley is a unique urban green space that provides a variety of habitats for wildlife, plants and people. It is an important wintering ground for the bald eagle and ideal habitat for many species of migratory birds. This area also serves as a buffer between existing neighborhoods and the current interstate. Two bicycle trails run along the river and improve the transportation choices for Des Moines residents.

Building a highway through this area will clearly harm its value to wildlife, reduce the value of the land as a floodplain and make areas downstream more prone to flooding. The proposed extension will also encourage sprawl outside the city and add to the traffic and air pollution problems of the region. Middle- and low-income neighborhoods near the proposed route will suffer from more noise and air pollution.

Given that new highways draw more drivers onto the road, the parkway extension would do little to ease traffic. Rather than building a major new highway and destroying this open space, a smarter plan would enhance this urban green space and use public transportation to ease the area’s traffic congestion.

The last paragraph is crucial: this road project would do little to ease traffic. I am old enough to remember the debate over extending 100th St. in Clive over the Clive Greenbelt during the 1980s. That was supposed to solve a lot of traffic problems in the western suburbs, but it didn’t do the job. Instead, there has been more sprawling development and more traffic in the area.

The Des Moines River Greenbelt contains outstanding habitat for birds that are very sensitive to noise that would accompany a major road. We don’t have an abundance of riparian forests in central Iowa anymore and should preserve the ones that remain.

If you care about wildlife habitat and/or sound transportation policy, I encourage you to get involved with one or more of the organizations that are fighting the NW 26th St extension. They include the Iowa chapter of the Sierra Club, 1000 Friends of Iowa, and Iowa Rivers Revival.

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