New Study Identifies Nine of the Worst Highway Projects Across the Country, $10 Billion in Taxpayer Dollars Wasted

U.S. PIRG Education Fund

A new report by the United States Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) Education Fund and Frontier Group identifies nine of the most wasteful highway expansion projects across the country, slated to collectively cost at least $10 billion. This third iteration of the highway boondoggles report details how despite America’s mounting repair and maintenance backlog, and in defiance of America’s changing transportation needs, federal, state and local governments across the country continue to spend billions each year on expanding highways. The report disputes the claims used to justify these investments and argues that the projects are outright boondoggles.

“Prioritizing highway expansion over the repair and maintenance of existing systems is using tomorrow’s money to pay for yesterday’s policies,” said Lauren Aragon, 21st Century Transportation Fellow at U.S. PIRG Education Fund and co-author of the report. “Those past policies, however, have been proven to be ineffective at decreasing congestion, pollution and traffic, and instead add strain to already limited budgets, while hurting public health and the environment,” she noted.

While $10 billion is scheduled to be wasted on these highway boondoggles, the most recent federal data show the country has 56,000 structurally deficient bridges, about 9 percent of all bridges. Moreover, a recent analysis of the nation’s highways reported that 21 percent had poor pavement condition. Once maintenance on these structures is deferred, the future cost to repair and rehabilitate roads and bridges back to good condition grows significantly, adding to mounting transportation infrastructure costs. 

“Americans are fed up with their commutes, but decades of research shows us that more and wider highways aren’t the answer,” said Tony Dutzik, senior policy analyst with Frontier Group and co-author of the report. “The $27 billion we currently spend each year on highway expansion can’t fix congestion, but it could make a big difference in fixing our streets and transit systems, and in giving Americans more transportation choices in their daily lives.”

The study recommends that states:

  1. Invest in transportation solutions that reduce the (need) for costly and disruptive highway expansion projects by focusing investments on public transportation, land-use policy, road pricing measures and technological measures that work to help drivers avoid peak-time traffic.
  2. Adopt fix-it-first policies that invest in repair and maintenance of existing road, transit and rail systems and stop the continued deference of these actions to future dates, further increasing a mounting maintenance and repair backlog of billions of dollars;
  3. Use the latest transportation data and require full cost-benefit comparisons for highway projects, including future maintenance and repair needs. This includes fully evaluating potential public-private partnerships.
  4. Revise transportation forecasting models and use up-to-date travel information, reflecting a range of potential future trends for housing and transportation and incorporating the potential impacts of shifts to other modes of transportation, including public transportation, rail, biking and walking, as well as newer options such as ridesharing, carsharing, and bikesharing.
  5. Give priority funding to transportation projects that reduce growth in vehicle-miles traveled, to account for the public health, environmental and climate benefits as well as the reduced need to increase road capacity in the future.
  6. Invest in research and data collection to better track, and more aptly react, to ongoing shifts in how people travel.

Some of the egregious examples of wasteful projects discussed in the report include:

  • I-405 Widening, California, $1.9 billion – Widening one of the nation’s busiest stretches of Interstate highway in Orange County would draw new traffic to the road, create new bottlenecks, and replicate the failed approach to congestion relief of an earlier I-405 widening project in Los Angeles. 
  • I-73, South Carolina, $1.3 billion – A proposal for a new Interstate linking I-95 to Myrtle Beach is unnecessary, environmentally damaging, and would divert money from a growing crisis in road maintenance in the Palmetto State
  • I-75 North Truck Lanes, Georgia, $2 billion – Construction of the nation’s first long-haul, truck-only lanes would represent a giveaway to the trucking industry, while undermining a rail-based approach to freight movement in Georgia that is intended to get trucks off the roads.
  • I-30 Widening, Arkansas, $632 million – Widening a highway that cuts through the heart of Little Rock would impede the city’s downtown revival while potentially causing as many transportation problems as it solves.

The report also looks back at the 23 highway boondoggles identified in the 2014 and 2016 versions of this report. Since the original reports came out, several states have revisited these projects, ultimately deciding that the money should be spent elsewhere. For example, the Mon-Fayette Expressway was put on hold due to the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission’s mounting debt and lack of public support. In California, the Tesoro extension was denied on the ground that it would threaten local water resources.

“Investing in new and wider highways when we already have a backlog of maintenance and repair for our existing infrastructure system is irresponsible,” said Aragon. 

The report can be read here.


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