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Are Congestion-Relief Mega-Projects "Boondoggles"?

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From 1982 to 2014 the annual direct cost of traffic congestion in America’s metro areas increased from $42 billion to $160 billion (both measured in 2014 dollars). A major reason for this was that states and metro areas cut way back on adding capacity to their urban expressways and major arterials during the 1990’s and 2000’s, while both population and the economy kept growing.

Fortunately, that near-moratorium on capacity expansion has been reversed to some extent over the past decade or so, in no small part thanks to growing use of variable tolling (to manage traffic flow and to generate revenues) and long-term public-private partnership (P3) procurement of mega-projects such as adding express toll lanes to congested expressways.

This change is anathema to anti-highway groups like the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), which every few years puts out another report arguing that highways are old-fashioned and that as much highway funding as possible should be diverted to expanding transit and providing more infrastructure for walking and bicycling. PIRG’s newest report, released last month, is “Highway Boondoggles 2: More Wasted Money and America’s Transportation Future.” It singles out 12 projects and argues that each is a foolish boondoggle that is a poor use of limited transportation resources.

PIRG’s overall rationale is laid out in the executive summary. It rests on four assertions, of varying degrees of validity, as follows:

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

No one claims that a single project will “solve” (eliminate?) congestion. And in a fast-growing metro area like Houston, just keeping congestion from getting worse by adding capacity counts as progress. But what PIRG ignores is the powerful congestion-reduction being produced by variable pricing, which is part of a number of the projects it terms “boondoggles.”

2.”Americans’ long-term travel needs are changing.”

Here PIRG cites obsolete mid-recession 2009 data purporting to show that Millennials are turned off by cars and driving, so funding should be reallocated to transit, biking, and walking. We now know that Millennials are buying cars at a rapid clip and moving to the suburbs as they start families. Ironically, elsewhere in the report PIRG faults state DOTs for not using current data in their planning.

3.”FHWA and many state DOTs are increasingly dependent on the failing gas tax and infusions of general fund spending.”

That’s true, but here again PIRG seems oblivious to the growing use of pricing and tolling to add important funding resources to the picture.

4.”States continue to spend tens of billions of dollars on new or expanded highways that are often not justified in terms of their benefits.”

That is true of some projects in some states; benefit/cost analyses are used far less than they should be. That is one of the virtues of toll-financed P3 projects: you cannot sell the bonds unless you can demonstrate that enough demand can be realistically projected for the project.

I’m familiar with six of PIRG’s dirty dozen, and see all six as worthwhile projects.

Two of them are projects to reconstruct and widen aging Interstates: I-95 across Connecticut and I-70East in Denver. The former will very likely be toll-financed, since it’s highly unlikely that Connecticut can come up with the projected $11.2 billion otherwise. The $1.2 billion Denver project will eliminate a very congested bottleneck and will add express toll lanes in this corridor between downtown and the Denver International Airport.

Two others are missing links in existing urban expressway networks: the I-710 deep-bore tunnel beneath (rather than through) South Pasadena, CA and a missing link of the SH 45 ring road in rapidly growing Austin. The 710 tunnel has been designated as the region’s most needed highway investment, and will likely be developed as a toll-financed P3 project. The much smaller Austin project will be a locally financed toll road, like the other segments of SH 45. Both these projects will significantly improve circulation in their respective metro areas.

The final two projects will add express toll lanes to congested freeways: I-4, I-75 and I-275 in Tampa, FL and I-77 in Charlotte. Readers of this newsletter need no reminders of the large, sustainable benefits that express toll lanes bring to congestion-plagued freeway systems. Both of these projects are initial stages in a planned urban-region network of express toll lanes.

In trashing these projects, the PIRG report repeatedly claims they will not “solve” congestion, or that they will “increase traffic.” I already addressed the first; as for the second, why would you add capacity to an electric utility, a cell-phone provider, or a school system if there was not increasing demand for its services? It’s the same with highways; that’s the job of a state DOT: to meet the demand for highways.

PIRG also lambastes new-capacity projects for “increasing pollution.” That assertion counts on the reader being ignorant of two facts: (1) that substituting steady flow on priced lanes reduces tailpipe emissions compared to cars operating in stop-and-go conditions on arterials or clogged general-purpose lanes, and (2) that vehicle emissions are on a steady downtrend, thanks to federal CAFE standards that will require 54.5 average mpg of new cars by 2025, just nine years away.

Alas, gullible reporters gave the PIRG report unearned credibility. For example, the credulous Washington Times headlined its story, “Government Allocates Billions for Questionable New Highways,” and provided its readers with little or no factual context. PIRG’s local affiliates succeeded in getting free media publicity in California (I-710), Connecticut (I-95), Florida (Tampa ETLs), and North Carolina (I-77 ETLs), for stories that basically repeated the factually challenged PIRG critique.

(This article first ran in the February 2016 issue of Surface Transportation Innovations)

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