As transit agencies continue to battle for funding across the country, many states are pushing ahead with costly highway expansion projects.
A new report by the US Public Interest Research Group (US PIRG) found that “Highway Boondoggles” (huge infrastructure projects that siphon tons of money from transit expansion and repair) saddle states with increasing debts and don’t even solve congestion after billions of dollars of taxpayer money is spent.
Investing in transit, coupled with robust transportation demand management strategies, is a much more cost-effective approach to tackling congestion and moving people. (And we’ll be releasing some tools this summer that demonstrate this.)
Particularly egregious, Wisconsin is aiming to spend almost $2 billion on rebuilding and adding lanes to 18.5 miles of I-94 even after Gov. Walker rejected $810 million federal dollars to build high-speed rail, citing the cost of $7.5 million that the state would be on the hook for in subsidies every year. The cost to expand just under 20 miles of highway would have covered that $7.5 million for more than 250 years.
The highway expansion is part of a $4 billion bid to lure the tech manufacturer Foxconn. Meanwhile, money has been much more difficult to come by for a proposed transit-service expansion for workers of the plant commuting from Milwaukee, according to the report. This is at odds with the state’s attempts to persuade millennial transit riders to move from Chicago to Wisconsin.
But Wisconsin isn’t the only state that’s bad with money: the US PIRG report details nine highway expansion projects across the country costing $30 billion combined. US PIRG points out that this money is desperately needed for the country’s massive backlog of road and bridge repairs, not to mention $90 billion backlog of transit repair.
Even as states continue to add to the miles of highway that require maintenance, the gas tax revenue that builds and maintains these networks continues to stagnate, having not kept up with inflation. This requires agencies to borrow large amounts of money to fund the expansions, raising the cost of projects by adding more money that must be spent on debt servicing.
On top of the immense cost, it is well-known that road expansion does not solve congestion. When more lanes are added, more cars and drivers are drawn to the road because it becomes easier to drive until it is soon just as congested as before – a process called induced demand.
States should learn from the failures and obscene expense of highway expansion in the past and instead spend their limited resources on maintaining the highways they already have, or better yet, expand and repair their transit networks. This would take cars off the road and give drivers stuck in traffic a second option instead of simply expanding the traffic jam.
Photo of ribbon-cutting ceremony for Interstate I-49 between Arkansas and Louisiana by Arkansas Highways.