Bad Highway Expansions Cost Americans Billions
By Laura Bliss
Every year, local and state governments around the U.S. set their sights on big new highway projects. Some propose to build fresh six-and eight-lane regional corridors; others to add lanes and fancy interchanges to highways that already exist.
In either case, the rationales are often the same: meet the demands of growing populations, bring aging roads up to modern safety and design standards, and—almost without fail—relieve congestion. But as project bids move through the approval processes to secure coveted federal funds, something that tends to go unexamined is whether mobility needs can be met without them.
For example, the benefits of better maintaining the lanes that already exist are rarely compared to making new ones, even though it’s well documented that U.S. highways and bridges badly need repair to relieve traffic backups and improve safety. Within cities, public transit projects are also rarely considered as an alternative. And some state DOTs have begun to admit what transportation researchers have known for decades: Congestion just doesn’t get better with the addition of lanes. In fact, over the long run, it gets worse, thanks to the principle of induced demand.
Still, as the latest report from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group shows, the American road fixation persists. For the past five years, PIRG has issued annual surveys of the worst “highway boondoggles,” calling out projects proposed around the country that are set to cost billions of tax dollars in spite of serious questions about their merit. This year’s culprits include the $450 million plan to widen a highway through the heart of Portland, a new $2.2 billion six-lane corridor underway in Raleigh, a much-derided $7 billion proposal to fatten 25 miles of Houston interstate, and the rapidly progressing $8 billion High Desert Freeway to interconnect California’s inland empire—plus five others. Together, the nine projects are set to consume about $25 billion.