Rt. 53/120 Expansion Makes National List of Highway Boondoggles, Wastes $2.3 Billion in Taxpayer Dollars

Media Contacts
Abe Scarr

State Director, Illinois PIRG; Energy and Utilities Program Director, PIRG

New Report Identifies Nine of the Worst Highway Projects Across the Country

Illinois 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. Making the list of national highway boondoggles is the proposed State Routes 53/120 toll road in Lake County, expected to cost $2.3 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.

“This 23-mile toll road will accelerate urban sprawl, induce more traffic on local roads and have a negative impact on the surrounding environment. It’s time to reassess our priorities when it comes to big highway projects or we’ll never solve our transportation issues,” said Abraham Scarr, Director at the Illinois PIRG Education Fund. “Prioritizing this new toll road at the expense of infrastructure maintenance and transit service improvements that would move people off the road is irresponsible,” he added.

“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.”

While estimations put the state route 53/120 construction project at a cost of $2.3 billion, the most recent federal data show Illinois has more than 2,243 structurally deficient bridges, about 8.4 percent of all bridges. Moreover, other data also show 42 percent of major roads in the state are in poor or mediocre condition. Once maintenance is deferred, it costs significantly more to repair and rehabilitate back to good condition in the future.

Livable Lake County, a coalition of organizations, has been the main source of resistance to the state route 53/120 extension project. Livable Lake County, local Mundelein leaders, and residents will deliver and mail over 3,000 petition signatures to Governor Rauner on Thursday, 04/20th, at the Mundelein Post Office.

“We are pleased to see that, after their independent review, US PIRG has reached the same conclusion that we have about the proposed Rt. 53 extension. Their report cites it’s extreme cost, inefficient modes and better alternatives that place it in their list of the nine biggest transportation boondoggles in the US. Every time the Tollway repeats this charade, they curry favor with profiteering contractors, but waste another decade trying to ram a Tollway through the communities and wetlands of Lake County with the same result: the 53 extension is unaffordable, unneeded and unfair. That’s a boondoggle,” states chairman of Livable Lake County, Evan Craig.

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.

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. And in Illinois, the Illiana Expressway was suspended in 2015 by Governor Rauner.

“Investing in a tollroad while existing road and transit systems need maintenance, repair and rehabilitation to be in a good state of repair  just doesn’t make any sense,” said Scarr.