Stop Highway Boondoggles

More and more of us are looking for better transportation options. Yet we’re still spending billions to expand roads and build new highways every year, even as other needs — from expanding public transportation to critical bridge repairs — go unmet. Across the country there are countless proposed highway projects that are not just expensive — they’re outright boondoggles. We need your help to stop them. 

America is in a long-term transportation funding crisis. Our roads, bridges and transit systems are falling into disrepair. Demand for public transportation, as well as safe biking and walking routes, is growing. Traditional sources of transportation revenue, especially the gas tax, are not keeping pace with the needs. Even with the recent passage of a five-year federal transportation bill, the future of transportation funding remains uncertain.

In the past, we’ve identified proposed highway projects across the country that illustrate the need for a fresh approach to transportation funding. In our two reports, Highway Boondoggles and Highway Boondoggles 2, we’ve picked out 23 of the worst examples of irresponsible transportation spending, which combined, would cost billions in scarce transportation dollars. These projects are either intended to address problems that do not exist, or will have grave and destructive impacts on surrounding communities. And they represent just a sample of the many questionable highway projects across the country that could cost taxpayers tens of billions of dollars to build, and many more billions over the course of upcoming decades to maintain.

Americans’ transportation needs are changing, so why aren’t America’s transportation spending priorities?

State governments continue to spend billions on highway expansion projects that fail to solve congestion 

In Texas, for example, a $2.8 billion project widened Houston’s Katy Freeway to 26 lanes, making it the widest freeway in the world. But commutes got longer after its 2012 opening: By 2014 morning commuters were spending 30 percent more time in their cars, and afternoon commuters were spending 55 percent more time in their cars.

Or consider that a $1 billion widening of I-405 in Los Angeles that disrupted commutes for five years — including two complete shutdowns of a 10-mile stretch of one of the nation’s busiest highways — had no demonstrable success in reducing congestion. Just five months after the widened road reopened in 2014, the rush-hour trip took longer than it had while construction was still ongoing. 

Highway expansion saddles future generations with expensive maintenance needs, at a time when America’s existing highways are already crumbling 

Between 2009 and 2011, states spent $20.4 billion annually for expansion or construction projects totaling just 1 percent of the country’s road miles, according to Smart Growth America and Taxpayers for Common Sense. During the same period, they spent just $16.5 billion on repair and preservation of existing highways — the other 99 percent of American roads. 

What's more, according to the Federal Highway Administration, the United States added more lane-miles of roads between 2005 and 2013 — a period in which per-capita vehicle miles traveled declined — than in the two decades between 1984 and 2004.

Federal, state and local governments spent roughly as much money on highway expansion projects in 2010 as they did a decade earlier, despite lower per-capita driving.

Our list of highway boondoggles

We’ve targeted some of America’s biggest highway boondoggles, and are working to stop them from moving forward. Just as importantly, we plan to use these examples as a way to spark a serious conversation about making smarter transportation choices, and giving us more options to get around.  

Click here to see our list of highway boondoggles

Americans’ long-term travel needs are changing 

In 2014, transit ridership in the U.S. hit its highest point since 1956. And recent years have seen the emergence of new ways to get around, including carsharing, bikesharing and ridesharing, and the influence of those new options is only beginning to be felt.

According to an Urban Land Institute study in 2015, more than half of Americans — and nearly two-thirds of Millennials, the country’s largest generation — want to live “in a place where they do not need to use a car very often.” Similar trends exist for older adults. An AARP study showed older adults in general put the creation of pedestrian-friendly streets and local investment in public transportation in their top five priorities for their communities.

Moving America forward 

It’s time to put an end to highway boondoggles, so we are working with concerned citizens, community groups, policy makers and elected officials to send these wasteful highway projects back to the drawing board.

Our lives, our communities, and how we get around are constantly changing. It’s well past time for our transportation spending priorities to reflect these changes, rather than the outdated assumptions that so many of them are based upon. We deserve to have a safe, reliable transportation system that offers real options for however people might want to get around. Stopping these highway boondoggles is an important first step for getting us there.

Issue updates

Blog Post | Transportation

A World Without Carbon Pollution – Closer Than You Might Think | John Olivieri

For many, a world without carbon pollution seems like a distant utopia. To some, this even seems unobtainable. The size and scope of the challenge before us can be daunting, yet, there is good news -- a world without carbon pollution is closer than you think.

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America is facing a $1.4 trillion infrastructure funding crisis. This isn't some distant problem; it's already having a real effect on everyday Americans.

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Good Things Come to Those On Bikes | Sean Doyle

Pull the bike out of the closet, pump up those tires, and dust off the helmet because it's Bike to Work Week!

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Don’t Believe the Hype – Millennials’ Transportation Habits Are Changing | Sean Doyle

Despite news stories claiming that Millennials are buying up cars at record rates, the reality is quite different. After adjusting previous studies to account for differences in the size of the generations measured, on a per-capita basis, Millennials are 29 percent less likely than members of Generation X to own a car.

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Blog Post | Transportation

All Americans Deserve Clean Air to Breathe, On Earth Day and Every Day | Sean Doyle

U.S. DOT asks if we should measure global warming pollution from transportation.

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News Release | Georgia PIRG Education Fund | Transportation

PIRG on National Expert Blog about Transportation Stimulus

President-elect Obama is correct to liken an infrastructure stimulus to Eisenhower’s historic initiative to create the Interstate Highway system. That endeavor set the patterns for America’s car-dominated transportation network and suburban growth throughout the second half of the twentieth century. The coming stimulus similarly presents a tremendous opportunity to advance transportation goals for the twenty-first century.

It is critically important how infrastructure stimulus money gets spent. It is not enough to simply spend money. Nor should Congress assume that more transportation is always better. As many have pointed out, America’s transportation system isn’t just broke; it’s also broken. In fact, transportation contributes to many of America’s most pressing problems. Consider:

  • Each year Americans waste billions of dollars and millions of hours stuck in traffic – a problem that is often made worse by construction of new highways.
  • Our transportation system is also the chief source of our nation’s addition to oil, consuming two our of every three barrels, and leaving our nation vulnerable to volatile prices and hostile foreign regimes.
  • Cars and trucks are the biggest end-user source of global warming pollution. We will not succeed in reducing these emissions unless we allow Americans to reduce the number of miles they drive.
  • Finally, too many transportation projects like Alaska’s infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” have been embarrassing boondoggles that erode confidence in government and divert dollars from more productive uses. 

Clearly, not every infrastructure dollar is equally good for the public interest. As state Departments of Transportation eagerly offer lists of favored projects, how should Congress and the Obama administration decide?

 There needs to be a commitment to spend for results rather than simply to inject dollars. The reason that there is such wide consensus that our national transportation system is dysfunctional is because the current system primarily collects gas taxes from the states and then pumps those dollars back based on outdated formulas forged by political compromises that had nothing to do with achieving national goals. For decades, the federal government has spent billions of dollars on highway projects with little evaluation and no accountability. That must change. Spending is not based on allocating dollars where they will yield the greatest results. There are not even clear goals for what the transportation system should accomplish.

 Thus the next Congress should should spend taxpayers’ money more wisely by focusing transportation dollars on solving our nation’s biggest problems. Federal transportation money should be spent only on projects that produce real results over the long haul – for example, by reducing our dependence on oil, curbing global warming pollution, alleviating congestion, improving safety, and supporting healthy, sustainable communities.

 A rough guide for what that change looks like can likened to the difference between the early Detroit bailout requests and the emerging counter proposals. Rather than simply throw more money toward continuing failure, the emerging consensus seems to be that funds most go toward a fundamental shift in the business model and in the mix of vehicles that get produced. No less substantive change should be demanded from a stimulus package for our dysfunctional transportation system.

As part of ensuring accountability, state DOTs should report on the results of how transportation stimulus money gets spent. That sounds like common sense but it would actually be a major shift from the current system. States should report back on the extent to which the projects funded with stimulus money increased or decreased jobs, energy security, carbon dioxide emissions, vehicle miles traveled. Perhaps the second installment of a two-year package would be allocated according to how well states advance national goals with the first installment.

Other priorities for spending transportation stimulus should also advance the nation toward future goals. Emphasis should be placed on expanding clean, efficient transportation choices for Americans by prioritizing investment of new funds for light rail, commuter rail, rapid bus service, high-speed intercity rail and other forms of modern public transportation. At least as much money should be allocated to these transportation choices as to roads and highways. In doing so, federal policy will encourage transportation investments that build dynamic and accessible communities, where more Americans can walk, bike or take transit to get where they need to go. Meanwhile stimulus money allocated to roads and bridges must prioritize "fixing it first." Investment should go to maintenance and repair of America's crumbling bridges, not massive new highway expansions. 

The United States Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) has signed up growing support for these basic principles from over 100 public officials from state, local, and federal government as well as other civic leaders. 

 

To see a list of the principles and signatories see:http://www.uspirg.org/issues/transportation/more-and-better-transit/transportation-principles-signers

 

To see more about U.S. PIRG’s positions and reports on transportation, see: http://www.uspirg.org/issues/transportation

 

For an in-depth report on America’s transportation challenges and solutions, see:http://www.uspirg.org/uploads/2q/fV/2qfVu2ZrflTk-TnRQEDdDw/A-Better-Way-to-Go-vUSPIRG.pdf

To view this and future blogs by Baxandall and Krieger, go to http://transportation.nationaljournal.com/2008/12/how-should-infrastructure-stimulus-be-spent.php

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News Release | Georgia PIRG Education Fund | Transportation

Should we privatize toll roads? NO

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News Release | Georgia PIRG Education Fund | Transportation

Transit Funding, Projects Get Boost

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Road Work Ahead Holding Government Accountable for Fixing America's Crumbling Roads and Bridges

Over the last 50 years, America has built roads and bridges at a pace and scale that dwarfs most of the rest of the world. We’ve built a national highway network like no other, with more than 45,000 miles of interstate highway and 575,000 highway bridges. 

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Report | Georgia PIRG Education Fund | Transportation

Greasing The Wheels

In the wake of the Minnesota I-35 bridge collapse there was enormous public outcry and recognition of the need to repair our crumbling infrastructure. Americans expected public officials to respond to the tragedy with a large scale effort to address the nearly 73,000 structurally deficient bridges in this country. The findings in this report suggest that did not happen.
As Congress prepares a new multi-year, multibillion dollar transportation bill, we explored the intersection of money and politics and recent transportation funding decisions.

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Private Roads, Public Costs

A growing number of states are considering arrangements in which a private operator provides an up-front payoff or builds a new road in return for decades of escalating toll receipts. The report assesses these deals and identifies a number of problems, including: 

· Private toll roads typically require greater toll hikes to generate the same upfront payment that could be generated without privation.

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Report | Georgia PIRG Education Fund | Transportation

Economic Stimulus or Simply More Misguided Spending?

President-elect Obama has declared that the next recovery plan must do more than just
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Report | Georgia PIRG Education Fund | Transportation

Squandering the Stimulus

America’s dependence on oil has become increasingly painful. Two thirds of oil in the United States goes to transportation, with the largest share consumed by cars and trucks. As the rising price of gasoline makes driving more expensive, Americans have sought alternatives by driving a little less and riding public transportation more. 

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Blog Post

Talk about a captive market: For most of us, it's next to impossible to work, shop or go to school without a car. Auto lenders are taking full advantage.

Report | Georgia PIRG Education Fund

New governors are getting ready to take office in 20 states, from Florida to Alaska. As America’s newly elected governors prepare to take on their states’ biggest challenges, they should prioritize taking bold action on the greatest challenge of our time: climate change.

News Release | U.S. PIRG Education Fund

Getting rid of that black cloud of exhaust behind our buses, and the negative health and environmental effects that come along with it, is easier than it may seem. According to a new report from U.S. PIRG Education Fund and Environment America Research and Policy Center, electric buses are not only cleaner and healthier than diesel buses, but transit agencies and school districts have many affordable options at their disposal to adopt them.

Report | U.S. PIRG Education Fund

Most of America’s school and transit buses run on diesel, a highly-polluting fuel, but there is a better option. All-electric buses are here, and they’re cleaner, healthier and save money for transit agencies, school districts and bus contractors to run in the long-term. 

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The Trump administration is making some pretty outlandish claims to justify its roll back of the nation’s most effective program at fighting climate change. Asserting that stronger fuel economy standards make our roads less safe, the administration moved last week to weaken Obama-era clean car standards -- but their claims just aren’t true.

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