New report exposes seven budget-eating highway projects still moving forward amid COVID-related budget shortfalls

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Unnecessary and harmful highway boondoggles would cost $26 billion collectively while states face huge deficits, which threaten to cut transit service for essential workers

U.S. PIRG

BOSTON — The COVID-19 crisis has changed how Americans travel and has left transportation agencies scrambling for money to maintain basic service, yet states are continuing to press on with billions of dollars worth of highway expansion projects that made little sense before the pandemic and even less now. In the sixth edition of their Highway Boondoggles report, U.S. PIRG Education Fund and Frontier Group identify seven new budget-eating highway expansion projects across the United States, slated to move forward amid a nationwide health crisis at a cost of over $26 billion collectively.

“Every time we spend money on infrastructure, we have an opportunity to re-envision the future,” said Matt Casale, director of U.S. PIRG’s environment campaigns. “If we’re smarter about how we spend our transportation dollars and focus instead on building a 21st-century transportation system, America can build a better world coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, one with less pollution, less gridlock and more public and active transit.”

Among the seven new projects identified in Highway Boondoggles 6, no project would saddle a state with greater debt and irreversible environmental degradation than Florida’s M-CORES project. This $10 billion, 330-mile, multi-highway construction project, would strain the state’s already overstretched budget in addition to impacting some of Florida’s last remaining undeveloped lands, threatening the endangered Florida panther with extinction. Despite cutting $1 billion from the budget in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the state’s 2020-21 budget, approved by Gov. Ron DeSantis, still includes $90 million for M-CORES.

Over six editions of Highway Boondoggle reports, U.S. PIRG Education Fund and Frontier Group have profiled 60 boondoggles – defined as “work or activity that is wasteful or pointless but gives the appearance of having value.” In addition to identifying the seven new projects, Highway Boondoggles 6 looks back at one boondoggle profiled from its previous edition, the expansion of I-94 in Milwaukee. This project serves as a reminder that wasteful highway construction projects can still be revived by incoming state legislators even after scheduled work and funding approval have been rescinded. The project’s resurrection and over $1 billion price tag also comes amid budget shortfalls related to the COVID-19 pandemic: Wisconsin has suffered steep decreases in revenue and in July, Gov. Evers ordered state agencies to cut their budgets by $250 million. 

“Decades of highway expansion projects have left us stuck in traffic and stuck in debt,” Gideon Weissman, Frontier Group policy analyst and report co-author, said. “We need a new approach — one that allocates money where it’s needed the most as opposed to doubling down on the failures of the past.”

Some of the most costly expansion projects included in the report are:

  • Cincinnati Eastern Bypass; Ohio; $7.3 billion: Ohio’s plan to build a 75-mile bypass around the eastern side of Cincinnati would cause sprawling development and overwhelm the state’s construction budget.

  • Birmingham Northern Beltline; Alabama; $5.3 billion: The Alabama Department of Transportation is pushing a project reliant on intermittent and insufficient federal funding, which could take 40 years to complete.

  • Loop 1604 Expansion; Texas; $1 billion: A major expansion to a 23-mile section of Loop 1604 in San Antonio would threaten the Edwards Aquifer, which supplies drinking water to millions of people in the region.

The report recommends that states cancel these — and other — proposed highway expansion projects in light of the huge budget shortfalls caused by COVID-19 and instead invest in pressing transportation needs such as road repair and transit expansion.  

“It’s clear, with this latest report, that America still has a misplaced appetite for costly, polluting and ineffective highway expansion projects,” said John Stout, U.S. PIRG Education Fund’s Transportation advocate and report co-author. “COVID-19 has highlighted how stark our transportation needs truly are, especially for essential workers and low-income households without access to a car. Rather than costly highway boondoggles, we need  to start using our money more wisely by investing in public transit, walking and biking instead.”

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