Report calls for redirecting infrastructure funds toward repairs, sustainability, instead of harmful highway expansions
AUSTIN, Texas – TexPIRG Education Fund and Frontier Group released Highway Boondoggles 8: Doubling down on wasteful, destructive highway projects on Thursday. The newest edition of this annual report calls on decision-makers, including those here in Texas, 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, including the expansions of I-10 in El Paso and I-35 in Austin, proceed, they would waste billions of taxpayer dollars, increase air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions – while failing to reduce congestion.
“The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act provides an historic investment in our transportation system,” said Kian Zozobrado, Communications Manager for TexPIRG Education Fund. “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, including Texas, 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.
Of the 20 largest infrastructure projects supported by formula funds in the first full year of the law, almost all include the widening of existing highways, and most include the construction of new associated infrastructure such as interchanges, ramps and roundabouts. Three of the top five most expensive formula-funded projects (the Loop 1604 Expansion, I-35 Expansion and LBJ East Expansion – all in Texas) were highlighted in previous Highway Boondoggles reports.
Over eight editions of Highway Boondoggle reports, U.S. PIRG Education Fund (TexPIRG 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.
This year’s list of costly expansion projects includes the I-10 expansion through El Paso, which officials are planning based on unrealistic traffic figures, even though it will bring demolitions and displacement to the city. The project seeks to rebuild and expand highways through 5.6 miles of downtown El Paso between Executive Center Boulevard and Loop 478 on Copia Street. The downtown segment of the project is currently anticipated to cost approximately $750 million – potentially up to $800 million – $300 million of which has already been approved by the Texas Transportation Commission. TxDOT has yet to secure full funding, but continues to move forward with project studies.
The report also includes an update on the expansion of I-35 through Austin, profiled in the 2018 report. Despite fierce pushback from Austin’s residents and City Council, the South segment from SH 71/Ben White Boulevard to SH 45 Southeast broke ground in November 2022, while the North segment from SH 45 North to US 290 East started in March 2023, both earlier than scheduled. In August 2023, the Texas Department of Transportation jointly released the final environmental impact statement and record of decision for I-35 Central, with construction anticipated to begin in mid-2024.
“With more funding available than ever before 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 including Texas 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.
“For decades, we’ve wasted money on more highway lanes, yet traffic has only gotten worse. It’s time to transform transportation,” concluded Zozobrado. “To improve Americans’ health and quality of life, we should be investing in proven solutions including public transit and more walkable and bikeable cities and towns — not going down the same policy roads to more dead ends.
TexPIRG Education Fund is an independent, non-partisan group that works for consumers and the public interest. TexPIRG Education Fund is part of The Public Interest Network, which operates and supports organizations committed to a shared vision of a better world and a strategic approach to getting things done. Through research, public education, and outreach, we serve as counterweights to the influence of powerful special interests that threaten our health, safety, or well-being.