How the Lure of “Free Money” Leads to Highway Boondoggles

xar
Northeast Ohio has lost 7 percent of its population since the 1970s, but has continued to steadily add highway miles. Chart: NEOSCC

Why do transportation agencies spend so much money building new highways while letting their existing roads and bridges fall apart?

Jason Segedy, the head of Akron’s metropolitan planning agency (AMATS), shared a few thoughts on that question at his blog Notes from the Underground. A big problem, he says, is that regional and state agencies see federal transportation funding as “free money” for highway expansions:

I think that the federal government should transform most (if not all) of the [Surface Transportation Program] into a road and bridge maintenance program. I don’t think much (if any) of this funding should be available for highway capacity expansion projects.

I think that if state or local governments want to do those projects, it should largely be on their own dime. Too many states and local governments see the federal dollars as “free money” and undertake capacity expansions that they probably wouldn’t embark upon if these federal funds were unavailable for this purpose.

While there are always individual project exceptions, I think that most roadway capacity-adding projects (especially in a shrinking region like ours) are not cost-effective, especially given our changing demographics and our increasingly precarious fiscal position at the local, state, and federal level.

I think that governments throughout Ohio are collectively spending too much on new highway capacity and not enough on maintenance — largely due to the fact that federal money can be used for capacity expansion.

Making states face the full cost of road expansion — sounds like a great idea. Think Congress could be convinced?

Elsewhere on the Network today: Bike Portland reports that business is booming for a local convenience store whose owner has gone out of the way to cater to cyclists. Urban Cincy shows off pictures of the Queen City’s brand new protected bike lane. And Transportation for America rounds up the important local transit measures on ballots around the country next month.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

Tell Congress: Don’t Waste Money on Highway Expansion

|
States should know better than to funnel more money into road expansion at the expense of maintenance. With President-elect Obama back in Washington, action is heating up again around the economic recovery package, which could total up to $850 billion over the next two years. As much as $100 billion may be at stake for […]

A Transportation To-Do List for the Next President

|
How can the next president improve American transportation policy? Without wading into the spectacle that is the election, Beth Osborne, a former top official at U.S. DOT who’s now a vice president at Transportation for America, lays out a presidential agenda for transportation reform at The Century Foundation. National transportation policy hasn’t fundamentally changed since Eisenhower, and Osborne says […]

MAP-21 Puts the Squeeze on Bridge Repair and Bikes

|
One of the most popular elements of the new transportation authorization is its consolidation or elimination of 60 federal programs. But this cleanup is not without its casualties. One of those casualties is the off-system bridge program. And another one, indirectly, is bicycle and pedestrian programming. As you can see, the Highway Bridge Program is […]