What AASHTO’s “Top Projects” Tell Us About State DOT Leadership

If you can build a project fast and under budget, AASHTO will love it, no matter how little sense it makes. Photo: Citizens Transportation Commission

Who can build the biggest road slab the fastest? Those seem to be the major criteria used by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials to determine the “best” projects by state DOTs across the country.

In another sign that most state Departments of Transportation should still be called “highway departments,” there are no transit projects on AASHTO’s “top 10” projects list this year. The closest thing to one is California’s Oakland-Bay Bridge, which was “built to accommodate future expansions in light rail, bus, and other modes of transportation.”

Many of the projects listed are bridge repairs (and emergency bridge repairs), which are important. But the list is also larded with highway expansions.

In Ohio, AASHTO showers praise on a $200 million project to bypass the town of Nelsonville, population 5,400. The project earned a nod for “reliev[ing] a major congestion problem” in rural southeast Ohio.

The most ludicrous selection is probably Segment E of Houston’s Grand Parkway. This is a $320 million portion of a proposed 185-mile third outerbelt for the city. Proponents of the project have openly admitted it is more about inducing sprawl than addressing any transportation problem. The Texas Department of Transportation, mired in financial woes, has allowed real estate interests in Houston to more or less dictate where money will be spent. Whether the state will be able to find the funds to complete the $5.4 billion loop is an open question.

This poster was created by students at Rice University. It shows Houston's proposed Grand Parkway in black to show its scale, compared with other ring roads around the world. Image: Rice University via Swamplot
This poster created by students at Rice University shows Houston’s proposed Grand Parkway in black, comparing its scale with other ring roads around the world. Image: Rice University via Swamplot

It seems that the actual merit of a project is not the key issue here, but rather the state’s ability to build something quickly and under budget. AASHTO gives credit in two instances for projects being completed before schedule and two are praised for coming in under budget. In some instances, like Houston’s Grand Parkway, the agency doesn’t even explain why it was chosen. AASHTO only says that it will reduce congestion on other Houston highways. That’s a questionable assertion at best, given that the project is likely to bring on a new wave of low-density sprawl.

The report is co-sponsored by AAA and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. You can vote for your favorite project here. Two winners will be honored.

  • Flakker

    SH99/Grand Parkway is a truly terrible plan, thank you for calling more attention to it. In a time when even other Texas cities are beginning to see the wisdom of stopping sprawl from robbing them of population and wealth, Houston blindly cheers on the same stupid model over and over again, as if the flow of immigrants and supply of land is unlimited.

  • 94110

    I’m not sure if the Bay Bridge East Span is the exception that proves the rule, or disproves it.

    It was hugely over budget, late, is still not finished due to broken bolts (in a completely inaccessible place), and traffic speeds (even without congestion) are less than expected. It also was a completely necessary replacement.

    I’ve never heard light rail mentioned for it, and it hasn’t been designed for it. No idea where AASHTO gets that, but in another couple years it will connect San Francisco’s Yerba Buena island and Treasure Island to non motored (pedestrian and bicycle) transportation for the first time!

    Of course it will be a connection to Oakland, not to San Francisco.

    It’s good to know that AASHTO isn’t so focussed on budget and schedule that they won’t include a project which failed massively in both of those criteria.

  • Daniel

    It might be time for Streetsblog to team up with NACTO for a
    Transportation Improvement award that concentrates more on how it
    improves safety and mobility instead of on how efficiently it allows contractors to syphon off government funds.

  • Jerry

    Folks, I support limited growth and think we should have a reasonable plan for future growth and expansion. Because it will happen. Instead of complaining, what are you proposing?

    I worked on the Grand Parkway for TxDOT and I attended many public and private meetings regarding why the project was a “good” and “bad” idea but no one really provided other options. Other than complain about roadway gridlock and why “not in my back yard.”

    Lets be real, none of our congressional leaders have the courage to stop the syphoning of the gas tax, which happens in a huge way, nor do they have the courage to increase the gas tax for much needed improvements not to mention maintaining what we have. We need to start addressing this issue before we get on the bandwagon of why a project is a bad idea.

    I believe in protecting our environment, I practice it in my personal life and educate my children to do the same but I will be the first person ready and willing to pay a toll to bypass gridlock that “WE” created. DOT’s do not create gridlock; they provide the infrastructure to get us from one place to another. Through public meetings and hearings, we should be voicing our thoughts on the type of improvements we need. If 2-lanes are proposed and we know we need 4-lanes, let’s say so. Even if acquisition of real estate is required.

    We are part of the solution; we just do not act like it.

  • Jay Blazek Crossley

    Hi Jerry,

    I’ve worked for almost a decade myself to oppose the Grand Parkway.

    I agree that there should be alternatives. We work much more on the transit, Complete Streets, and building code issues that would actually address the issues that road expansions pretend to address.

    In this case that road is wholly unnecessary and everyone knows it. According to TXDOT staff the purpose of the Grand Porkway is to “open up lands for development.”

    Now that the $350 million (ish) segment E is running it is carrying somewhere between 10 and 15,000 mostly SOV vehicles a day. What a terrible waste of funds, wetlands, prime farmland, and Houstonians’ time living in a wasteful, stressful lifestyle imposed by Representative Culberson and the TTC.

  • Andy B from Jersey

    This type of reasoning was also the basis for spending the very limited bike and pedestrian aid for one state DOT. That never even asked the question if the project would actually solve anything.

  • Andy B from Jersey

    Pretty pitiful that much of this project had to be outsourced to another country because the US didn’t have the capability to construct much of the projects parts! Shameful!

  • Central Ohio

    If you’ve ever driven between Columbus Ohio (Major US metro area) and Athens Ohio (Large College Town in Ohio) you would realize that bypassing Nelsonville was actually a good thing.

  • I’m from Columbus and I’ve driven it many times. My family used to stop at the Rocky Boot Factory. I’ve actually driven it since too. I still have my doubts. Did you know the money spent on that single project is 25 times the state’s total annual support for urban transit. Ohio’s cities, the centers of the metro area’s the drive the state’s economies, are suffering. Now they want to bypass Portsmouth. Few hundred million? No problem. I guess if you look exclusively at highway projects designed to move trucks, it is pretty awesome. Or if your a Columbusite who makes the trek to OU a lot. Or if you’re a trucker that passes through SE Ohio. Anyway, kudos to ODOT for making Ohio and awesome place to speed through in a truck. That strategy doesn’t seem to be ushering in the kind of prosperity its premised on, IMO.

  • Coolebra

    We build an awful lot of road projects that are designed to “accommodate future [transit] expansions.”

    When are we building the “future” transit expansions? The future is now yet we are continuing to build-out yesteryear.

  • Coolebra

    “DOT’s do not create gridlock; they provide the infrastructure to get us from one place to another.”

    No, they don’t anymore.

    Look at your state’s TIP and your regional MPO’s long range transportation plan. Where’s all the money going? We have the best road network on the planet, yet it is unreliable and can’t handle peak hour commuting. Something as simple as a flat tire change on the side of the road can cause massive traffic jams. Neither incidents nor driver behavior can be controlled through highway design.Yet, we keep building more of the same inefficient and ineffective solutions.

    Incremental capacity expansions and construction of new highways to serve outlandish projections of future need constitute highway robbery – yeah, highway robbery.

    We don’t need more lane miles of concrete and asphalt, we need improved and expanded transit. We need safe bike facilities. We need affordable, reliable, and efficient transit alternatives now, not more worthless projects that preserve future ROW for transit.

    We need to make smarter decisions with the scarce resources we have available.

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