Highway Boondoggles - A new report from Frontier Group

Last week, Frontier Group, a nonprofit think tank, released a new report entitled, Highway Boondoggles 2: More Wasted Money and America's Transportation Future. We're sharing an excerpt from that report today, with permission from the authors, Jeff Inglis of Frontier Group, and John Olivieri of U.S. PIRG Education Fund.

America is in a long-term transportation funding crisis. Our roads, bridges and transit systems are falling into disrepair. Demand for public transportation, as well as safe bicycle and pedestrian routes, is growing. Traditional sources of transportation revenue, especially the gas tax, are not keeping pace with the needs. Even with the recent passage of a five-year federal transportation bill, the future of transportation funding remains uncertain.

Twelve proposed highway projects across the country – slated to cost at least $24 billion – exemplify the need for a fresh approach to transportation spending. These projects, some originally proposed decades ago, are either intended to address problems that do not exist or have serious negative impacts on surrounding communities that undercut their value. They are but a sampling of many questionable highway projects nationwide that could cost taxpayers tens of billions of dollars to build, and many more billions over the course of upcoming decades to maintain.

America does not have the luxury of wasting tens of billions of dollars on new highways of questionable value. State and federal decision-makers should reevaluate the need for the projects profiled in this report and others that no longer make sense in an era of changing transportation needs. State decision-makers should use the flexibility provided in the new federal Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (FAST Act) to focus investment on real transportation solutions, including repairing potholes and bridges and investing in public transportation and bicycling and walking options.

Americans’ transportation needs are changing. America’s transportation spending priorities aren’t.

State governments continue to spend billions on highway expansion projects that fail to solve congestion.

  • In Texas, for example, a $2.8 billion project widened Houston’s Katy Freeway to 26 lanes, making it the widest freeway in the world. But commutes got longer after its 2012 opening: By 2014 morning commuters were spending 30 percent more time in their cars, and afternoon commuters 55 percent more time. 
  • A $1 billion widening of I-405 in Los Angeles that disrupted commutes for five years – including two complete shutdowns of a 10-mile stretch of one of the nation’s busiest highways – had no demonstrable success in reducing congestion. Just five months after the widened road reopened in 2014, the rush-hour trip took longer than it had while construction was still ongoing.

Highway expansion saddles future generations with expensive maintenance needs, at a time when America’s existing highways are already crumbling.

  • Between 2009 and 2011, states spent $20.4 billion annually for expansion or construction projects totaling 1 percent of the country’s road miles, according to Smart Growth America and Taxpayers for Common Sense. During the same period, they spent just $16.5 billion on repair and preservation of existing highways, which are the other 99 percent of American roads.
  • According to the Federal Highway Administration, the United States added more lane-miles of roads between 2005 and 2013 – a period in which per-capita driving declined – than in the two decades between 1984 and 2004.
  • Federal, state and local governments spent roughly as much money on highway expansion projects in 2010 as they did a decade earlier, despite lower per-capita driving.

Americans’ long-term travel needs are changing.

  • In 2014, transit ridership in the U.S. hit its highest point since 1956. And recent years have seen the emergence of new forms of mobility such as carsharing, bikesharing and ridesharing whose influence is just beginning to be felt.
  • According to an Urban Land Institute study in 2015, more than half of Americans – and nearly two-thirds of Millennials, the country’s largest generation – want to live “in a place where they do not need to use a car very often.” Young Americans drove 23 percent fewer miles on average in 2009 than they did in 2001.

The Federal Highway Trust Fund and many state transportation funds are increasingly dependent on the failing gas tax and infusions of general fund spending to sustain transportation investments.

  • The Federal Highway Trust Fund – once supported entirely by the gas tax – has been subsidized from general tax revenues since the late 2000s. Federal highway spending is projected to exceed revenues in every year through 2025, according to Congressional Budget Office projections. (See Figure ES-1.) The FAST Act transportation bill approved in December 2015 transfers an additional $70 billion from the country’s general funds to the Highway Trust Fund.
  • Bailing out the Highway Trust Fund with general government funds cost $65 billion between 2008 and 2014, including $22 billion in 2014 alone. Making up the projected shortfall through 2025 would cost an additional $147 billion.

States continue to spend tens of billions of dollars on new or expanded highways that are often not justified in terms of their benefits to the transportation system, or that pose serious harm to surrounding communities. In some cases, officials are proposing to tack expensive highway expansions onto necessary repair and reconstruction projects, while other projects represent entirely new construction. Many of these projects began or were first proposed years or decades ago, are based on long-outdated data, and have continued moving forward with no re-evaluation of their necessity or benefits.

Questionable projects poised to absorb billions of scarce transportation dollars include:

  • I-95 widening, Connecticut, $11.2 billion – Widening the highway across the entire state of Connecticut would do little to solve congestion along one of the nation’s most high-intensity travel corridors.
  • Tampa Bay Express Lanes, Florida, $3.3 billion – State officials admit that a decades-old plan to construct toll lanes would not solve the region’s problems with congestion, while displacing critical community job-training and recreational facilities.
  • State Highway 45 Southwest, Texas, $109 million – Building a new, four-mile, four-lane toll road would increase traffic on one of the most congested highways in Austin, and increase water pollution in an environmentally sensitive area critical for recharging an aquifer that provides drinking water to 2 million Texans.
  • San Gabriel Valley Route 710 tunnel, California, $3.2 billion to $5.6 billion – State officials are pushing forward with the most expensive, most polluting and least effective option for addressing the area’s transportation problems: a double bore tunnel.
  • I-70 East widening, Colorado, $58 million – While replacing a crumbling viaduct that needs to be addressed, Colorado proposes wasting millions of dollars widening the road and increasing pollution in the surrounding community.
  • I-77 Express Lanes, North Carolina, $647 million – A project that state criteria say does not merit funding is moving forward because a private company is willing to contribute; taxpayers will still be on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars.
  • Puget Sound Gateway, Washington, $2.8 billion to $3.1 billion – The state is proposing to spend billions of dollars on a highway to relieve congestion in an area where traffic has not grown for more than a decade, and where other pressing needs for transportation funding exist.
  • State Highway 249 extension, Texas, $337 million to $389 million – The Texas Department of Transportation relies on outdated traffic projections to justify building a 30-mile six-lane highway through an area already suffering from air quality problems.
  • U.S. 20 widening, Iowa, $286 million – Hundreds of millions of dollars that could pay for much-needed repairs to existing roads are being diverted to widen a road that does not need expansion to handle future traffic.
  • Paseo del Volcan extension, New Mexico, $96 million – A major landholder is hoping to get taxpayer funding to build a road that would open thousands of acres of desert to sprawling development.
  • Portsmouth bypass, Ohio, $429 million – Despite roads across Ohio being in dire need of repair, the state Department of Transportation is embarking upon its most expensive project ever: building a new road to bypass a 20,000-person city where driving is decreasing.
  • Mon-Fayette Expressway extension, Pennsylvania, $1.7 billion – A new toll road long criticized because it would damage communities is moving forward in an area where residents are calling instead for repairs to existing roads and investment in transit improvements.

America has a tremendous need for investment in transportation. Across the nation, aging roads and bridges – many of them nearing the end of their useful lives – need to be repaired or rebuilt. Our transit and passenger rail systems require repairs and technology upgrades to meet 21st century needs. And an increasing number of Americans are seeking more and better transportation options, including improved public transportation, better infrastructure for bicycling and walking, and access to new transportation services such as carsharing and bikesharing. 

Expanding highway capacity should be low on the nation’s list of transportation priorities. Yet, current state and federal transportation policies result in tens of billions of dollars being spent each year on new highway capacity – even as the federal Highway Trust Fund receives repeated bailouts. 

The projects highlighted in this report illustrate the need for a fundamental rethink of America’s transportation policy priorities – one that focuses resources on maintaining existing infrastructure and expanding the transportation choices available to Americans. The projects profiled in this report should be cancelled or updated to be more in tune with emerging transportation trends and community needs.

(All images courtesy of USPIRG)

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About Frontier Group

Frontier Group provides information and ideas to help citizens build a cleaner, healthier, fairer and more democratic America. We address issues that will define our nation’s course in the 21st century – from fracking to solar energy, global warming to transportation, clean water to clean elections. Our experts and writers deliver timely research and analysis that is accessible to the public, applying insights gleaned from a variety of disciplines to arrive at new ideas for solving pressing problems. 

About U.S. PIRG

With public debate around important issues often dominated by special interests pursuing their own narrow agendas, U.S. PIRG Education offers an independent voice that works on behalf of the public interest. U.S. PIRG Education Fund, a 501(c)(3) organization, works to protect consumers and promote good government. We investigate problems, craft solutions, educate the public, and offer meaningful opportunities for civic participation.