Frontage roads, the accepted government waste

Highway needs a friend

One on each side is the best

More to love indeed

Frontage roads are so standard in America that we never even question their ubiquity. They are literally everywhere. We were once heading north out of Boston and got stuck on some highway that had to have twenty miles of frontage roads. About every half to full mile there was a traffic signal that allowed one to get off onto the frontage road and access the Dunkin Donuts or 7/11 that are equally ubiquitous in the Northeast.

Last winter we drove from Dallas to San Antonio. Starting at about 40 minutes outside of San Antonio, the standard freeway design contained an off ramp every couple of miles with a frontage road along each side connecting one ramp with the next. The frontage road is where the development was - hotels, restaurants, offices, grocery stores, gas stations, service shops, etc... 

I'm actually a fan of Wikipedia, but I was disappointed (but not surprised) with their entry for "frontage road".

Frontage roads provide access to homes and businesses which would be cut off by a limited access road and connect these locations with roads which have direct access to the main roadway. Frontage roads give indirect access to abutting property along a freeway, either preventing the commercial disruption of an urban area that the freeway traverses or allowing commercial development of abutting property. At times, they add to the cost of building an expressway due to costs of land acquisition and the costs of paving and maintenance. However, the benefits of development nearby real estate can more than offset the cost of building the frontage roads.

We're going to return to this idea of "nearby real estate can more than offset the cost", but first let's call frontage roads what they really are: commercial advertising. 

There is nothing efficient about the construction of frontage roads. How can a road built parallel to another road possibly be thought of as efficient, especially when the frontage road consumes all of the resources of a normal road but only allows for low density development and then along only one side? 

Neither is a frontage road about providing access. Sure, in some retrofit situations where the highway department is providing access management, a frontage road will be built to eliminate intersections along the main highway. But outside of urban areas, few frontage roads are built for this reason. Most are simply built as a "logical" extension of the prevailing development pattern. We somehow deem that each abutting property owner has a "right" to access the highway and a frontage road becomes the default solution.

Should they have that right? When a highway is run past a property, if that property can be developed commercially, the value of that property increases significantly. Are these people ever assessed for this increase in value? Are they ever asked to share some of their newfound wealth with the public who has funded the project? Of course not, but they are given the eternal right of access to the new highway.

Now access to the highway would be fine, but at a price. Every highway access degrades the capacity and value of the highway itself. Shouldn't there be a cost - perhaps a per car toll - for this degradation to the public's investment? If the highway capacity is degraded enough, expensive renovations are necessary to improve capacity. A fee to access the publicly built highway would be a way to offset these renovation costs.

But that is not our value system, and we don't think that way. In fact there are many people reading this right now that will find this discussion too harsh, too insensitive and too anti-business.

Let me tell you what is anti-business. Raising business taxes to pay for the construction and maintenance of ever-expanding road systems is anti-business. Policies that subsidize new businesses on the periphery while established businesses in core areas are left with excessive congestion is anti-business. The construction of systems that encourage businesses to line up along expensive highway frontage and then force them to invest massive amounts of money in screaming signage is anti-business.

The American system of building highways and then constructing frontage roads is based on the incorrect notion that business development best happens in narrow strips along major transportation corridors. To disprove this notion one simply needs to drive along a corridor that has been developed in this way and note how, as there is a shift from new development on the periphery to old development closer to the city center, the value and use of the property dramatically declines. This pattern does not bring prosperity. It eats up resources and ultimately returns places of marginal value.

Let us give a different alternative, one that actually succeeds in making highway construction cheaper, makes highways safer to travel, improves highway capacity, reduces congestion and translates our transportation investments into local economic development that is resilient. Develop in nodes, preferably nodes that are at least six miles apart.

Without rampant government subsidies and special interests setting highway access policies, this is how highways would have developed. A township is six miles by six miles. The highway would run by the original town center (where the railroad stop used to be) and an access would be provided. All local roads would feed into this town center and, through that point, could access the highway. If traffic grew, this access point could be signalized or ultimately provided with a ramp of some sort. The same amount of businesses, or at least the number of businesses that could be supported by the community, would exist in a more efficient pattern. New investments would not displace old as the ground where the existing business are established would be centrally located and thus retain its value.

This is a sustainable financial model for growth. What we are doing now is not.

And if the locals felt it was in their interest to build roads along the highway, let them do it. Few would. Doing so would undermine their key investments and, if they had to pay for the frontage roads themselves, they could never justify spending so much to prop up so few.


The Strong Towns Blog; It's like reading Jim Kunstler, except you can share it with your mom. Sign up for a Curbside Chat, our project to bring the Strong Towns message to towns and neighborhoods across America. You can also join us on Facebook and Twitter.