Local Communities Ignored, Billions Wasted, Congestion Benefits Dubious
In the early hours of last Thursday morning, the Hillsborough County local Metropolitan Planning Organization approved the Tampa Bay Expressway project (TBX), clearing the way for the Florida Department of Transportation to move forward with the controversial highway expansion plan. The decision adds Florida to a growing list of states that are pushing forward with wasteful highway boondoggles slated to cost billions. Yet, TBX and other similarly controversial projects, such as the proposal to expand I-77 in North Carolina (which also got the nod last week), have been met with stiff and growing resistance from the local communities they purport to benefit.
“The decision by the Hillsborough MPO to formally add this project to the region’s project list is highly disappointing,” said Susan McGrath, Director of the Florida Consumer Action Network (FCAN). “This project is a waste of scarce transportation resources that could be better spent investing in a truly multimodal transportation system that prioritizes transit, biking, and pedestrian options that people increasingly want and need,” she added.
Michelle Cookson, of Sunshine Citizens, the organizing group that leads the StopTBX Coalition, was similarly troubled by the vote to advance the project. “TBX is too costly with no beneficial return on investment – it wastes transportation funds and doubles down on past mistakes. TBX does not provide viable transit, is outrageously expensive, and won’t relieve congestion. TBX will only induce more single-occupant vehicle traffic congestion, air pollution, and unsustainable sprawl,” said Cookson.
TBX has also drawn criticism from national transportation advocates. Both TBX, and the plan to widen I-77 in North Carolina, were profiled a few months ago in a report by the United States Public Interest Research Group. The report, Highway Boondoggles 2: Wasted Money and America’s Transportation Future, concluded that the projects were among the worst in the nation, wasting billions of dollars.
Yet, despite strong opposition from concerned citizens and local and national transportation advocates, officials in Florida and North Carolina have nevertheless decided to push forward with their controversial expansion plans anyway. Last Wednesday, the North Carolina Senate announced plans to refuse a vote on a popular state House of Representatives bill that would have cancelled the hotly contested project.
Concerned residents in North Carolina have repeatedly objected to the state’s plan to enter into a 50 year contract with I-77 Mobility Partners, a subsidiary of Spanish-based Cintra. Residents have expressed concerns that the project would negatively impact control of local transportation decision-making for decades, make transit additions more difficult in the region, and possibly expose taxpayers to financial repercussions if toll revenue is below target expectations.
“This project cedes control of local transportation planning for decades to foreign investors who only care about future toll revenue, not the welfare of the people,” said John Olivieri, the National Campaign Director for 21st Century Transportation at the United States Public Interest Research Group. “If this project proceeds, it will incentivize additional driving, increasing emissions that make us sick and pollute the environment. It may also make building additional regional transit, biking, and pedestrian infrastructure in the areas more difficult,” he added.
Projects like TBX and the I-77 expansion in North Carolina have been sold to the public on the grounds that they will help reduce congestion. However, a growing body of evidence suggests that, in the long-run, highway expansion is ineffectual at combating congestion. Critics of highway expansion point to Texas, where state officials spent $2.8 billion expanding the Katy Freeway to as wide as 30 lanes at some points, making it the widest highway in the world. The result: the expansion incentivized additional driving that soon offset the short-term benefits, with commute times in the morning and afternoon increasing 30 and 50 percent respectively.
“Expanding existing highways to accommodate new tolled lanes is often a failed exercise. Additional highway capacity incentivizes additional driving. Not long after completion, congestion commonly returns to preexisting levels or worse,” said Olivieri. “Drivers will likely see little benefit, all while states waste scarce transportation dollars that could be put to repair of existing infrastructure or much needed investment in healthy and environmentally friendly forms of transportation, including expanding transit, or building biking and walking alternatives,” he noted.
You can learn more about how we can achieve a cleaner and healthier transportation system here in Frontier Group’s recent report: A New Way Forward, Envisioning a Transportation System Without Carbon Pollution.
You can learn more about the benefits of reduced driving here in MASSPIRG’s recent report: What’s at Stake – How Decreasing Driving Miles in Massachusetts Saves Lives, Money, Injuries, and the Environment.
You can learn more about wasteful highway expansion projects in U.S. PIRG’s recent report on the subject: Highway Boondoggles 2: Wasted Money and America’s Transportation Future.