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Anatomy of a Highway Boondoggle

Posted by: Tony Dutzik on

Tags: transportation

A “boondoggle,” as defined by Google, is “work or activity that is wasteful or pointless but gives the appearance of having value.”

“Boondoggle” is an excellent word to describe many of the highway expansion projects that have occurred across America in recent decades. These projects consume vast amounts of public resources. In 2012, the United States spent $27 billion, a little more than a quarter of our collective highway capital budget, on system expansion – this at a time when our existing roads and bridges are aging and requiring expensive repairs.

Americans often look at highway expansion as a tangible, visible solution to their frustrating daily experience with the transportation system. For decades, transportation agencies, public officials and road-builders have promised beleaguered commuters that the next bout of highway expansion will be the one that slays the beast of congestion once and for all – backing their arguments with analysis that provides those projects with “the appearance of having value.”

However, as we’ve found in our two “Highway Boondoggles” reports (a third comes out tomorrow), the rationale for many highway expansion projects falls apart upon closer scrutiny. If America is to shift its focus toward transportation investments that deliver greater societal benefits for less money, it is important to be able to recognize the signs that a given highway expansion project just might be a boondoggle.

To that end, we’ve developed a sort of field guide with 10 tips for recognizing a highway boondoggle in the wild:

1) It is old enough to have a mid-life crisis. Many highway expansion projects have been in regional transportation plans for decades. In a country that has spent upwards of $5 trillion (2014$) on roads since the mid-1950s, chances are that any highway project that has sat on the drawing board since the 1960s has serious problems – otherwise, it would have been built already. Indeed, some projects have been on the drawing board so long that their entire reason for being has changed. The Mon-Fayette Expressway, which we profiled in our 2016 report, was originally proposed as being necessary to serve the Pittsburgh area’s once-burgeoning steel industry. Now, with that industry only a shadow of its former self, the highway is being sold as a tool to bring industry back to the area.

2) It solves a problem you didn’t know was a problem. Ask people what they don’t like about transportation, and they’ll complain about traffic, or crashes, or dirty air or noise. Often, however, the rationale given for expansion projects has little to do with any of these things. In the case of the quarter-billion dollar U.S. 20 widening project in rural Iowa (discussed in our 2016 report), the project was justified as needed to provide “lane continuity”— that is, the Iowa Legislature decided that the state should have a network of four-lane highways, and this area was the “missing link.” Never mind that no one believes there’ll be enough traffic to justify a four-lane highway there for decades.

3) It creates new problems that didn’t exist before. Widening a highway often draws additional traffic to the road, creating bottlenecks elsewhere. Take Florida, for example, where the state is in the midst of a $2 billion project to expand Interstate 4 through Orlando, called “I-4 Ultimate.” Once the widening is done, 10 lanes will merge down to six north and south of the city. Former Florida congressman and House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair John Mica described the situation this way to the Orlando Business Journal:

“Once the I-4 Ultimate is done, just close your eyes and imagine four more lanes plus increased traffic pouring in from Kirkman Road … you’re looking at a disastrous situation if we don’t do something about it right now. … You’re going to be adding significant numbers into one of the most congested segments of the highway.”

The proposed solution: a 40-mile, $2 billion-plus extension of the new lanes called (and I’m not making this up) I-4 “Beyond the Ultimate.” Repeatedly, we spend billions of dollars on transportation projects that cause problems that require additional public expenditures to fix. The expense of these “fixes” is rarely considered when debating the cost of the original project.

4) It is sold as the only way to avoid “carmageddon.” Highway expansion projects are often pitched as needed to avoid disastrous congestion decades in the future. Take, for example, the proposed widening of Interstate 405 in Orange County, California. The project’s environmental impact statement forecasts that, if nothing is done, by 2040 it will take 2 hours and 43 minutes to travel southbound on the 16-mile stretch of highway during the morning rush hour. Overall, rush hour traffic in the corridor would slow to between 5 and 8 miles per hour - slower than a bike ride. Californians may have unusual tolerance for traffic, but evidence of humans’ travel behavior over centuries suggests that our appetite for travel is not infinite – that is, that people confronted with spending three hours or more every day on one stretch of highway will find other options. This adaptability is why anxious predictions of “carmageddon” due to transportation system disruptions in cities like Atlanta to Los Angeles have consistently failed to materialize.

5) It fails to solve the problem it is intended to solve. There is sometimes a dirty little secret lurking in traffic studies and environmental impact statements for major highway projects: they just don’t deliver much bang for the buck in terms of congestion relief. In our first Highway Boondoggles report, we looked at the proposed Trinity Parkway toll road in Dallas. When we dug deep into the project’s environmental impact statement, we found that the percentage of roadways experiencing congestion in the area was expected to be exactly the same in 2035 whether the road was built or not. And, as the Dallas Morning News subsequently found, for some area residents, the commute would actually be worse.

6) It is a bad idea that suddenly became a good idea. Several states now prioritize transportation projects based either on a data-driven scoring system or decisions by a commission of some sort. These supposedly impartial mechanisms are intended to drive how transportation dollars are spent. But our previous reports have identified some projects – such as the addition of express lanes to I-77 in North Carolina and construction of the Portsmouth bypass in Ohio – that ranked low by objective evaluations, but wound up moving forward anyway, in part because financing emerged through a public-private partnership (PPP), which brings us to …

7) It is pitched as being built with free money. PPPs often create the perception of providing “free money” for transport system investment – encouraging agencies to defy fiscal gravity and build low-priority projects that might not otherwise go forward. There is an important role for thoughtful public-private partnerships in transportation. PPPs, however, are often sold to decision-makers not on the basis of efficiency or value, but rather on their potential to get roads built faster. That is a recipe for future trouble.

8) It is sold as needed for economic development. Transportation agencies often display an inherently contradictory understanding of the role of highways in society. When it comes to addressing congestion, highway expansion is proposed to serve future population and economic growth that is assumed to occur whether the highway is built or not. Yet, when highways are sold to the public on economic development grounds, they suddenly gain the power to move mountains – to attract new industries and unlock new economic opportunities.

Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns highlighted this contradiction in his recent deconstruction of the economic case for a highway project in Shreveport, Louisiana:

“We use circular arguments to justify that which we want to do. Congestion is harming the Shreveport economy. We must build a highway to bypass the congestion. We must create congestion along the new highway to economically justify its construction. It's the circle of life.”

9) It is sold with pictures of birds and bunnies. A couple of years ago, I came across a poster at the annual Transportation Research Board meeting in Washington, D.C., describing a proposed highway project in Texas. The poster consisted nearly entirely of cute cartoons of squirrels, rabbits and trees – not a stretch of asphalt to be seen. At a time when many communities really want the things on the poster – parks, trees, bikeways, streetscape improvements and trails – but struggle to fund them, the strength of this kind of appeal can be a good indicator of the underlying unacceptability of the proposed highway project itself ... and the siren song of state money for these improvements a tempation to go along with otherwise damaging highway expansions.

10) Local people have better ideas. Most of the highway boondoggle projects we have identified in the last few years have been met with opposition by committed local people, including, often, political leaders in the towns in the path of the project. Often, local leaders have clear ideas of what might otherwise be done with the hundreds of millions of dollars scheduled to be spent on a particular project. Changing the federal and state policies that create highway boondoggles will only occur once the true costs of those projects are understood – and once advocates can propose a vision for transportation policy that doesn’t just provide the “appearance of value,” but rather real, concrete benefits for a wide variety of people. Locally generated solutions can serve as the foundation for that vision.