Dogging a Boondoggle:
Arif Khan Takes
on a Highway

a Boondoggle:
Arif Khan
Takes on a Highway

Barbara Epstein
View all stories

Prior to COVID, Arif Khan ’16 and his wife Sabeen had been running their restaurant, the Hoot Owl, in Pine Bush, NY, while he volunteers as a fire fighter and accepts consulting contracts for planning. Early this year, Arif reached out to an active Loeb alumni network for help with an issue that had caught his attention: a proposal to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to widen a sleepy highway through the Hudson Valley. This interview is adapted from conversations with Arif about his activities.

Barbara Epstein  You have a long history of grassroots activism. Tell me about your resistance to the Route 17 expansion, and why you felt you had to take action.

Arif Khan  I read in the Wallkill Valley Times that Senator Chuck Schumer has been pushing again to “improve and expand” Route 17 by adding a lane in each direction. All the press has been positive, like it’s progress. I admit I’m generally against highway widenings, and this section of highway really doesn’t have traffic. A lot of studies show that adding a lane actually attracts more vehicle traffic; it’s called induced demand.

I think $500 million for a project that doesn’t add value isn’t worthwhile. I reached out to organizations that I thought would be against it, and I thought the Loebs might know groups that could be allies. The Loeb Fellowship email list is a really valuable resource.

In general, the groups I called were opposed, but they didn’t have the capacity to mount a campaign. One organization said it’s too big to fight because there’s 15 years of inertia behind it and a lot of money spent on first studies. They didn’t think they could win, which only emboldened me to work on it.

Finally, in response to an email about why I thought it was boondoggle, Catskill Mountainkeeper asked to have a chat. They offered me a small contract to produce a report about who’s behind it and why, what’s the value, and who’s opposing, which I did. I recommended building a coalition, writing a letter to the governor, and doing some kind of public campaign.

BE  Sometimes something like this starts when there’s an expressed community need, but in this case you were following your gut.

AK  Each step spurred me on, in a way. I contacted proponents, like one community organization whose website talks about livability, smart growth, transit, and creating great places, and I thought, this is weird, why are they supportive of this highway idea? When I talked to the director she told me she was glad I’d reached out, because she’d had trouble supporting it, but her board overruled her. When I gave her the facts I discovered, she said she was going back to convince her board to leave the “pro” coalition.

The Loebs provide great connections, but the best connection was from my neighbor, an interior designer with a background in local media. I was looking for a journalist, but the person he suggested was his old neighbor and friend, the former chief engineer of the State Department of Transportation. That guy told me that indeed this had no value for transportation, and he thought it was a travesty. He gave me great information about the process and how it can be stopped.

This 45 mile roadway goes through two counties in the Hudson Valley. The former planning commissioner of Orange County also had tried to get his county not to endorse it, and he shared his memo with the reasons for his opposition.

I wasn’t looking to run a new campaign, but there was a terrible gap of no one coordinating a response or opposition. I don’t like being a NIMBY and saying no to stuff, but ultimately what drove me was the opportunity cost of an unnecessary project. If there’s so much money to spare, why not use it for repairs on existing roads and bridges, and, ideally, support of transit and biking and walking?

It upset me that Senator Schumer frames himself as a climate and transit champion but is strongly behind this. His office didn’t respond to my outreach, but Congressman Delgado’s office asked for more info.

If there’s so much money to spare, why not use it for repairs on existing roads and bridges, and, ideally, support of transit and biking and walking?

BE  Give me your Coalition Building 101.

AK  I don’t know if I’m a good coalition builder, but I was introduced to some veteran coalition builders who gave good advice, like not to think about the next step after stopping the project. First focus on stopping it, because if you get involved saying what the money should be used for, it will weaken your consensus. I thought that was clever because I don’t like to be negative, and I thought we should be proposing an alternative vision. But everyone is likely to have a different vision.

The other thing I heard was, even though I have a master’s in planning and was a Loeb Fellow, I’m still a bit of an outlier–a crazy guy–so I need an organization behind this. It needs to be Catskill Mountainkeeper’s project, maybe with Scenic Hudson and the Regional Plan Association and other influential groups.

I like working on projects that I’m passionate about. It feels like it’s not work. I really want to know more about this, so I’m going to work on it.

BE  What has surprised you as you’ve pursued this?

AK  It’s a political project pushed by the construction and real estate industries, aided by their US senators, who say it’ll be good for the economy and for quality of life. The boards of some booster organizations include engineers and real estate folks that stand to win from the millions being pumped in. Originally the big shock was thinking, it looks like it’s a government waste, why don’t I rally fiscal conservatives to oppose this? But not one of them has responded. My neighbor, the chair of the Republican party and very influential in state and Republican politics hasn’t, plus the local Republican official has endorsed the project. Maybe they think their constituents would win from it, and they understand road building as a necessary thing rather than as a government handout. But the project would help only the largest national construction companies, which I don’t think are good firms to subsidize from an equity standpoint. It won’t help small scale construction, which has more work than it can handle up here and isn’t at the level to be brought on as a subcontractor.

The environmental folks are open to the potential climate change impacts of adding a lane. For others, the knee jerk reaction is everyone hates sitting in traffic and the government should fix this by adding more lanes. The tricky part is I haven’t talked to enough general public to see if there’s a feeling either way.

BE  We’ve talked before about your micro versus macro view and the need to focus on the community for building transformational change, and it seems there’s a connection here.

AK  A lot of things we spend money on–like military funding–are destructive to the overall collective goals of this country. Those are things I feel are too big for me to fight, but this one seems doable.

I think my original intention was: here’s a dumb thing that I can get a bunch of different groups– like fiscal conservatives and environmentalists that might be disparate in their positions on other things–to work together against. Thinking about how the momentum has gone, the opposition to this project might pit the environmentalists against the economy, which is not what I intended. That’s good for me to reflect on before it goes too far.

I look forward to those conversations, even the difficult ones. Just like I want to have conversations with people who are still Trump supporters–maybe I’ll see a different point of view, or a different reality and a different set of facts, and it’s fascinating to me.

BE  What keeps you up at night about this project?

AK  Mostly I’ve been up thinking about the opportunities.

When I gave my preliminary presentation to Catskill Mountainkeepers, the director’s mother and father, Patricia and John Adams, were present, and I thought, it’s nice his parents are interested. Later I learned that John Adams was founding director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, received a Presidential Medal of Freedom for his environmental work, and was instrumental in getting the Clean Water Act passed. There may be a powerful ally there.

I was also introduced to Fisher Stevens, a filmmaker who lives up here now. He said he would be interested in doing a short piece about this effort and asked me to send him a script, which I did. That’s a fun thing because I do have a secret wish about writing, and I’ve done rough screenplays, but I usually lose momentum. I think having a very pragmatic possible outcome would help motivate me to complete something.

The Hoot Owl

BE  What about your other involvements?

AK  Sabeen and I are consulting to the School of Practical Philosophy on a plan for property they own up here, but a lot of work on that is architectural design and site planning, so that’s mostly her. The restaurant’s been closed, and we could bring it back this summer, depending on vaccination and opening up restrictions. We’re entertaining ideas from a couple of our former chefs that might want to run it, so we would become the owners and not the operators.

I am also coordinating contact tracing for my County Department of Health and serving as a liaison between the county and the state, and overseeing our COVID public information center. Plus, I’m still involved with my volunteer fire department, and I’m working with them to recruit more volunteers.

BE  What’s the next step with regard to Route 17?

AK  I have a contract with Catskill Mountainkeeper to coordinate the strategy and campaign on their behalf. That will mean getting other environmental organizations on board, drafting a letter to Governor Cuomo, and creating more public awareness with op eds, other media coverage, and social media. I reached out to Aaron Naparstek to help get the attention of Streetsblog and gave them my research and contacts, which they used for a recent article.

The project studies are due in October, so that’s our current timeline. The project website doesn’t have much information, and the pro side just had their first public meeting on 3/17. Catskill Mountainkeeper requested to be on the advisory committee but were refused, despite the pro lobby having a seat on the “stakeholder committee.” There’s probably going to be a fair amount of activity between now and October.

BE  The advice you received was to stay focused on the current effort, but what’s your long view?

AK  I’m looking at this as maybe a one to two year project, if I can make a strong enough case to scare politicians from ever supporting it again. If I can shift some influential people and public opinion and erode the political support for it, I think it’ll go away.

My long view is to transition these lobbies that have been doing this thing for 50 or 60 years building more highways. I get it that lobbies want support for their cause and federal dollars. It seems like it’s an easy transition to get these folks to push for things that would be better for everyone else, like more transit, more bike/ped, more other things that have been shown to have positive impacts on equity, environmental, and public health, versus highway building or highway widening that’s shown to have mostly negative effects. It causes people to drive further, more pollution, more congestion. So, my long view is to take these folks who are proponents of this thing, and not just stop them, which would make me their enemy, but shift them to other opportunities. Here’s an opportunity right now, where you have what we can call a “grey old deal” and push it to towards a Green New Deal. The longer term I’m interested in is pushing for more climate friendly and beneficial transportation projects.

Arif Khan in 2015