New report highlights wasteful U.S. highway boondoggles, including one in Massachusetts

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Owen Drury Sullivan, Associate, [email protected], 617-775-5245

BOSTON – MASSPIRG Education Fund and Frontier Group today released Highway Boondoggles 8: Doubling down on wasteful, destructive highway projects. The newest edition of this annual report calls on decision-makers, including those here in Massachusetts, to reexamine a number of proposed highway projects in light of the damage that new or expanded highways do to the communities around them. If these boondoggles proceed, these projects would waste billions of taxpayer dollars, increase air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions and disrupt communities – while at the same time failing to reduce congestion.

“The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act provides an historic investment in our transportation system,” said Owen Sullivan, MASSPIRG Education Fund Associate. “Government spending should improve our quality of life, yet these projects will squander billions while increasing pollution and failing to reduce congestion. That is the definition of a boondoggle.”

When President Joe Biden signed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law of 2021, he green-lit unprecedented funding for transportation projects. But the law gives states flexibility to decide how to spend much of this money. Many states are doubling down on highway construction and expansion. However, these projects will divert funds from fixing the state’s crumbling infrastructure and creating a sustainable transportation network, while doing little to alleviate congestion.

This year’s list of costly expansion projects includes the forthcoming replacement of the Bourne and Sagamore Bridges here in Massachusetts. In 2020, the US Army Corps of Engineers recommended that both bridges be demolished and replaced by two twin bridges, sitting side by side. In other words, where there are now two structures, there will, if these plans go ahead, be four. Each bridge would carry traffic going in one direction, and each could have three lanes, expanding the current roadway by 50%. The huge cost associated with this project, initially estimated at $1.5 billion, has grown to $4 billion, and does not account for the extensive roadway infrastructure necessary to accommodate these new constructions. 

Intended to reduce traffic, the expanded lane capacity of these bridges has both residents and experts concerned. In addition to the environmental concerns over increased car use voiced by Cape Codders, expanding a highway ultimately leads to the highway becoming congested again – often in only a short time. James Aloisi, a former Massachusetts state transportation secretary and board member of the advocacy group TransitMatters, stated in a recent interview: “Every piece of data, every lesson from history is that any roadway, highway, bridge expansion is typically followed by the same levels of congestion.” He continued; “If you build it, people will come.” In February 2023, Kevin Sullivan, state transportation secretary from 1999 to 2002, speaking on CAI’s “Morning Edition,” stressed the need to keep all options on the table – including rail and ferries – rather than simply assuming that more and wider roads are the answer: “If people are worried about climate change, you’ve got to look at rail as an alternative,” he said. 

Providing viable transit alternatives to driving is a provable solution to traffic congestion—an essential provision against climate change in Barnstable county, where vehicle traffic accounts for 55.5% of total greenhouse gas emissions according to the Cape Cod Commission’s Regional Greenhouse Gas Inventory.

Over eight editions of Highway Boondoggle reports, U.S. PIRG Education Fund (MASSPIRG Education Fund’s national partner) and Frontier Group have profiled 73 highway boondoggles – road projects that are wasteful, unnecessary and harmful to the environment and local communities. The latest edition profiles seven new projects – some of which have been given new momentum by funds provided through the 2021 infrastructure law — slated to cost at least $16 billion in total.

“With more funding available than ever for transportation, America has a unique opportunity to fix the problems caused by a century of car-centric transportation planning,” said James Horrox, policy analyst at Frontier Group and lead author of the report. “Instead, transportation authorities are in many cases repeating the misguided policies of the past and accelerating wasteful and damaging highway projects.”

The report recommends that states reconsider these – and other – proposed highway expansion projects and instead use federal funding from the bipartisan infrastructure law to clear their highway repair backlogs and invest in public transportation and infrastructure conducive to other, more sustainable modes of transportation such as biking and walking.