Study identifies 12 most wasteful highway projects in U.S.

The Wisconsin Gazette

A new study by the United States Public Interest Research Group Education Fund and Frontier Group identifies the most wasteful highway projects across the country, slated to collectively cost at least $24 billion.

The study details how despite massive repair and maintenance backlog and in defiance of America’s changing transportation needs, state governments continue to spend billions each year on new and wider highways.

The study shows how some of the projects are “outright boondoggles.”

“Many state governments continue to prioritize wasteful highway projects that fail to effectively address congestion while leaving our roads and bridges to crumble,” said John Olivieri, national campaign director for 21st century transportation at the U.S. PIRG and co-author of the report.

“This in turn saddles future generations with massive repair and maintenance backlogs that only grow more painful and expensive to fix the longer we wait to do so,” he noted.

The report says these are examples of waste:

• 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, while further investment in rail infrastructure has long been overdue.

• 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.

• 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.

• 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 considering 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.

• 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.

Recent federal data show that more than 61,000 bridges or roughly one in 10 are structurally deficient nationwide. While other data show that states are overwhelming investing scarce transportation dollars in expansion rather than repair — collectively spending 20.4 billion (55 percent) expanding 1 percent of the current system, while spending just 16.5 billion (45 percent) repairing and maintaining the other 99 percent.

At the same time, the research shows states are failing to account for changing transportation trends, especially among millennials.

“America’s long-term travel needs are changing, especially among Millennials, who are driving fewer miles, getting driver’s licenses in fewer numbers, and expressing greater preferences to live in areas where they do not need to use a car often,” said Tony Dutzik senior policy analyst at the Frontier Group.

“Despite the fact that millennials are the nation’s largest generation, and the unquestioned consumers of tomorrow’s transportation system, states are failing to adequately respond to these changing trends,” he added.

The study recommends states:

• Adopt fix-it-first policies that reorient transportation funding away from highway expansion and toward repair of existing roads and bridges;

• Invest in transportation solutions that reduce the need for costly and disruptive highway expansion projects by improving and expanding public transit, biking, and walking options;

• Give priority to funding transportation projects that reduce the number of vehicle-miles people travel each year, thereby also reducing air pollution, carbon-emissions, and future road repair and maintenance needs;

The report also looks back at the 11 highway “boondoggles” identified in 2014, including in Wisconsin.

Since that original report came out, several states revisited plans to expand and build new highways. The Trinity Parkway project in Dallas was revised from a six-lane road to a more limited four-lane road and the proposal to create a double-decker tunnel for I-94 in Milwaukee was postponed for the foreseeable future. Also, the Illiana Expressway, a proposed $1.3 billion to $2.8 billion toll-way intended to stretch from I-55 in Illinois to I-65 in Indiana was placed on indefinite hold.

“Investing so heavily in new and wider highways at a time when so much of our existing infrastructure is in terrible disrepair is akin to putting an extension on your house while the roof is leaking. It just doesn’t make any sense,” said Olivieri.