Highway Boondoggles

Year after year, state and local governments propose billions of dollars’ worth of new and expanded highways that often do little to reduce congestion or address real transportation challenges, while diverting scarce funding from infrastructure repairs and key transportation priorities.

Since 2014, PIRG has documented 65 wasteful or unnecessary highway projects, originally slated to cost a total of $157 billion. Learn about projects in your area using the map and search tool below.

The federal bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure deal signed into law in November 2021 has provided a previously near-unimaginable opportunity to invest in transportation in America. With more than half the funding made available under the new law going toward reauthorizing the surface transportation program, states now face a choice: Spend this money to address dire needs within our transportation system, or squander it on wasteful boondoggle projects.

The federal dollars made available through the infrastructure deal could be spent on fixing our aging roads, making our streets safer, and making it easier to travel on transit, by bike or on foot—giving Americans real, viable options for getting around without having to drive.

Alternatively, they could be spent on building and expanding highways.

Every year, tens of thousands of people are killed or injured on America’s roads, and millions more suffer serious health issues as a result of traffic-related air pollution. Tens of millions of Americans lack access to quality public transit or safe places to walk or cycle, leaving them fully dependent on cars, or – for those who cannot afford a car or who are physically unable to drive – entirely shut off from critical services and opportunities. 

And yet, across the country, state and local governments continue to move forward with tens of billions of dollars’ worth of new and expanded highways that do little to address today’s real transportation challenges, while diverting funding from much-needed infrastructure repairs. Highway Boondoggles 7 finds seven highway construction and expansion projects slated to cost a total of more than $22 billion that will harm communities and the environment, while likely failing to achieve the goals they set out to achieve.

Highway expansion harms our health and the environment, doesn’t solve congestion, and creates a lasting financial burden. 

  • Expanding a highway sets off a chain reaction of societal decisions that ultimately leads to the highway becoming congested again – often in only a short time. Since 1980, the U.S. has added nearly 870,000 lane-miles of highway – paving more than 1,648 square miles, an area larger than the state of Rhode Island – and yet, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, congestion on America’s roads was worse than it was in the early 1980s.
  • In 2016, the last year for which detailed data is available, federal, state and local governments spent a total of $27.6 billion expanding the highway system – including new roads and bridges and widening of existing highways – sucking money away from road repair, transit and other local needs.
  • Highway expansion fuels additional driving that contributes to climate change. Transportation is the nation’s number one source of global warming pollution.
  • Pollution from transportation causes tens of thousands of deaths in the U.S. each year and makes us more vulnerable to a range of health problems, including asthma, impaired lung function, coronary heart disease and strokes.
  • Highway expansion can cause irreparable harm to communities – forcing the relocation of homes and businesses, widening “dead zones” alongside highways, severing street connections for pedestrians and cars, reducing cities’ base of taxable property and overall community value, and stripping communities of their economic vitality. In places where cars are the sole mobility option, many who cannot or choose not to drive – including seniors, children and people with disabilities – are robbed of the opportunity to thrive and engage fully in their community.
  • Building new roads diverts billions of taxpayer dollars from repairing existing ones. Across the country, 173,000 miles of road are classed as being in “poor” condition, more than a third of bridges are in need of major repairs or replacement, and 7% of bridges are considered “structurally deficient.”

The bipartisan infrastructure deal of 2021, which sets the course of federal transportation policy and funding through 2026, almost doubles the funding provided by the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (FAST Act) that it replaces, providing an historic opportunity to address long-standing problems with America’s transportation system. 

The Biden administration has made clear its preferences that transportation funding made available through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) should be prioritized for repair, rehabilitation and maintenance of existing infrastructure and investment in “non-motorized modes and transit options that increase safety, accessibility, and/or connectivity” rather than highway construction and expansion. States now have to choose whether or not to follow that guidance.

With a major influx of funds now available to spend on addressing the real priorities of 21st century transportation, federal, state and local governments should stop or downsize unnecessary or low-priority highway projects. Specifically, policymakers should:

  • Invest in transportation solutions that reduce our dependence on automobile travel. Investments in public transportation, cycling and pedestrian infrastructure, transport demand management and other measures can often address congestion more cheaply and effectively than highway expansion. In addition to improving our health and environment today, such investments will also act as an insurance policy against future oil price fluctuations by reducing our reliance on fossil fuels.
  • Adopt fix-it-first policies that reorient transportation funding away from highway expansion and toward repair of existing roads and investment in other transportation options. 
  • Use the latest transportation data and require full cost-benefit comparisons, including future maintenance needs, as well as socioeconomic benefits and impacts, to evaluate all proposed new and expanded highways. This includes projects proposed as public-private partnerships. 
  • Give priority funding to transportation projects that reduce growth in vehicle-miles traveled, to account for the public health, environmental and climate benefits resulting from reduced driving.
  • Invest in research and data collection to better track and react to ongoing shifts in how people travel.
Topics
Authors

James Horrox

Policy Analyst, Frontier Group

James Horrox is a policy analyst at Frontier Group, based in Los Angeles. He holds a BA and PhD in politics and has taught at Manchester University, the University of Salford and the Open University in his native UK. He has worked as a freelance academic editor for more than a decade, and before joining Frontier Group in 2019 he spent two years as a prospect researcher in the Public Interest Network's LA office. His writing has been published in various media outlets, books, journals and reference works.

Bryn Huxley-Reicher

Policy Analyst, Frontier Group

Bryn Huxley-Reicher is a policy analyst at Frontier Group focusing on issues related to clean energy and the new economy. He has a BA in applied mathematics focused in earth and planetary sciences from Harvard University.

Matt Casale

Director, Environment Campaigns, U.S. PIRG Education Fund

Matt oversees PIRG's toxics, transportation and zero waste campaigns and leads PIRG’s climate program to promote a cleaner, healthier future for all Americans. Matt lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with his wife, two daughters and chihuahua.

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