3 White Elephants That Help Explain America’s Infrastructure Crisis

American spends billions of dollars widening roads that don't need widening, like Wisconsin State Route 23.
America spends billions of dollars widening roads that don’t need widening, like Wisconsin State Route 23. Image: Google Maps

A new report by the Center for American Progress zeros in on an under-appreciated culprit in America’s much ballyhooed infrastructure crisis: All the money we waste on useless roads.

CAP highlights three “white elephant projects” that illustrate how billions of dollars in federal infrastructure funds are squandered thanks to a lack of accountability in the transportation funding process.

“States receive federal highway funding based on formulas set in law, which reflect political negotiations as opposed to objective measures of need or return on investment,” writes CAP’s Kevin DeGood. “This means that states are not required to demonstrate the social, environmental, or economic value of their projects.”

These three projects represent about $1 billion in frivolous spending — and that’s only a small fraction of what’s squandered on dubious road projects each year.

1. Gulf Coast Parkway, Panama City, Florida ($420 million)

Gulf Coast Parkway: For $422 million, phantom new drivers on US 98 near Fort Lauderdale can have an alternate route that takes longer. Image: FDOT
The Gulf Coast Parkway: spending $422 million to accommodate traffic that will never exist. Image: FDOT

Florida’s “Gulf Coast Parkway” is a $420 million, 29-mile highway that will run east of Panama City. The stated purpose is to relieve congestion and promote economic development — boilerplate highway-building jargon. But if you take those objectives at face value, it’s very hard to see how the Gulf Coast Highway will deliver, writes DeGood.

First of all, the state’s traffic growth forecasts aren’t tethered to reality. Florida DOT predicts that traffic will increase 40 to 90 percent on US 98 — for which the Gulf Coast Parkway is held up as an alternative — in the next 20 years.

It’s hard to understand where all that traffic will come from. Panama City only added about 450 people in the last 13 years — a growth rate of about one percent. And the larger metro region is growing at a similar pace. So it can’t be new drivers.

Driving growth per capita isn’t on track to make up the difference. Total miles driven in Florida actually fell 1.7 percent between 2004 and 2014, DeGood reports.

The economic development claims are just as empty. For example, FDOT officials say the road is needed for better access to tourism destinations and transportation facilities. But FDOT’s own analysis says the Gulf Coast Parkway route won’t save travelers any time compared to US 98.

The flimsy rationale for the project is no obstacle to obtaining hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds — underscoring a major problem with U.S. transportation policy.

2. West Bay Parkway, Bay City, Florida ($556 million)

Should Florida spend $556 million expanding the road to the Panama City Airport? It's hard to justify, and the state hasn't done a very good job. Photo: Google Maps
Florida wants to spend $556 million expanding the road to the Panama City Airport. Photo: Google Maps

Right around the corner, Florida is planning another new highway on the other side of Panama City with a lot of the same problems.

The West Bay Parkway is a $556 million highway project that will run east-west for 25 miles, connecting to the Panama City airport. It involves widening CR 388 and constructing a new 10-mile highway segment. Again, the justification is congestion, despite the slow growth of traffic and population in the region.

Only 5,200 vehicles per day currently travel CR 388, well within the comfortable carrying capacity of a two-lane road, according to FDOT. But transportation planners are inexplicably expecting huge growth. Their modeling assumes a 9.1 percent annual increase in traffic every year for 30 years.

FDOT does not explain why traffic growth would so radically outpace local population growth or statewide driving growth. Even the baseline traffic figure FDOT employs is 174 percent higher than current traffic counts on CR 388, “again, without explanation,” notes DeGood.

Even if everything accepting those outrageous projections, FDOT predicts the corridor will generate as few as 7,100 trips per day.

3. Wisconsin State Highway 23 ($145 million)

Downtown Plymouth, Wisconsin. Photo: Wikipedia
Downtown Plymouth, Wisconsin. Photo: Wikipedia

Florida isn’t the only state where the DOT runs amok. Wisconsin wants to spend $145 million widening State Highway 23 in the central part of the state, converting the rural road from two lanes to a four-lane divided highway for 19 miles between Fond du Lac and Plymouth. The widening would terminate just before reaching downtown Plymouth (right).

DeGood says the state’s case relies on “circular logic.” One of the stated reasons for widening the road is that it doesn’t meet a standard established by the state in a long-range plan called Corridors 2020, from 1989.

He explains:

Why are connector roads marked for expansion in the long-range plan? Because they are deficient. Why are connectors deficient? Because they fail to meet the standard set out by the long-range plan.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation projects traffic between these two little towns will grow by 70 percent over the next 25 years — which DeGood calls “bewildering.” That rate is 17 times faster than the growth of Fond du Lac’s population.

These outlandish projections were recently challenged in federal court by a lawsuit from 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, an environmental group, a case that is currently pending. Legal intervention like that is rare, even when traffic projections border on fraud. But without the lawsuit, this project would have been green-lighted for federal funding with almost no questions asked.

As lawmakers craft a federal transportation bill, DeGood recommends safeguards to protect dwindling funds from being wasted on white elephants:

These snapshots illustrate why more money should be distributed on a competitive basis — where project sponsors must demonstrate value — and that states that build costly projects that underperform should receive less formula money in the future.

  • Matthias

    Wisconsin has spent an astounding amount of money on useless roads while crying poor when it comes to anything useful.

  • Anne A

    I’d love to see this money spent on improving rail service, like adding service between Madison and Chicago.

  • Jesse276

    WI was given 100% of the funds to do this by the federal government plus 90% operating subsidies & Gov Scott Walker turned the funds away. I’d love to see it too but I don’t know how that would happen.

  • Anne A

    Getting Scott Walker out of office and getting someone with a fully functioning brain in his place. Don’t know when that might happen.

  • cjlane

    “a lawsuit from 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, an environmental group, a case that is currently pending”

    Um:

    http://www.fdlreporter.com/story/news/local/2015/05/23/federal-court-halts-highway-expansion-project/27853659/

    Seems that the case led to a ruling that, with the current WI approach to budgeting, means it is likely dead-for-now.

  • 42apples

    There are plenty of transit boondoggles as well.

  • Alan

    Sure. But we spend much less money on them.

  • Edward Lewis

    Yes stop using Florida as your scapegoat because plenty of projects in other states deserve attention.

  • Edward Lewis

    I never heard of those Florida projects so you must have done some digging to find those. Its a shame because i think of thousands of other projects that need this coverage.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    $1 billion equals between 1,000 and 5,000 miles of protected bike lanes

  • John Abler

    The writer of this article is attempting to mislead everyone. Hwy 23 has not gone through Plymouth for about 20 years. They moved it North of the City because of the amount of traffic. He forgets to tell you that the highway is 4 lanes from Sheboygan to Plymouth already. Traffic from all of East-Central Wisconsin uses this route. There is much industry and recreation (Road America Race Course for one) traffic using this highway. The volume and severity of crashes on this two lane stretch of road keeps increasing. Local folks are avoiding the highway because of how dangerous it is. It is easy to sit in front of your computer and spout off about this without ever experiencing what is going on here.

  • John Abler
  • Rob Sanders

    This article is … misleading, at best.

    “This means that states are not required to demonstrate the social, environmental, or economic value of their projects.”

    Any MPO worth their salt is required, usually by state constitution, to do a cost-benefit analysis on every project money is dedicated to. This is in addition to spending fuel tax revenue in a population-equitable manner throughout their regions. Add in the federal EIS process, and there’s no question projects demonstrate social, environmental, AND economic value.

    I’d love to see a response from Wisconsin and Florida DOTs. But I doubt this blogger would go to that effort.

  • Ross P

    And widening / adding more lanes won’t fix it, it never does.

    Widening in particular has been shown to increase accidents (because people drive faster on wider roads).

    You’ll just spend an obscene amount of money building and maintaining a highway that won’t be any better than your last one.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    so with all Those drivers using this Road for absolutely necessary transport, the toll must be pennies .

  • neroden

    The FL and WI MPOs are not worth their salt. Corrupt and dishonest.

  • neroden

    Yes Scott Walker made an outright lie. Jesse is 100% accurate.

  • robo94117

    These wasteful projects are happening in California as well.

    As we are charged with reducing GHG emissions by SB-372 and other legislation, a large chunk of transportation funding still goes to highway expansion.
    Caltrans, to their credit, has a “fix it first” policy and is turning attention to maintenance of our distressed roadways, but since localities control 75% of transportation funding, many are not putting it into projects which will lower emissions.
    It’s now well-researched and documented that adding lanes may alleviate congestion for a short period of time, it also draws more drivers on to the highways. A short time later, we’re faced with 3 congested lanes rather than two, or in the case of Los Angeles, 7 congested lanes rather than 6.

    The state needs to aggressively pursue more sustainable infrastructure expansion. Caltrans, in the past, was driven by engineers and funds from big projects. They say they are shifting from that paradigm, and giving more say to their team of often-ignored planners, most of whom have solid solutions to transportation issues, and are charged with examining a transportation system which will handle projected population and job growth on a 25-year horizon. Whether the outcome will be positive is yet to be seen, but with a Governor calling for even more dramatic cuts in emissions, it seems like the time is right to make some major policy changes.

  • marcotico

    “there’s no question projects demonstrate social, environmental, AND economic value”

    Any cost-benefit that is conducted only compares capital expenditures against traffic performance. An EIS only require that the project identify any impacts to air quality, noise and other traditional environmental criteria. If there is an impact the project should make a mitigation (but doesn’t have to unless they get sued, the feds don’t hold the, to that).

    However the author’s argument still stands, because those analyses are conducted based on the DOT’s own standards for performance, and use the same faulty projections. So the author is right, it doesn’t have to justify the expenditure in terms of the social environmental costs of building more roadways, or justify this roadway against another transportation expenditure

    Furthermore, a mitigation only addresses the impact it doesn’t cancel out the impact. For example, if there are noise impacts building a soundwall doesn’t make the noise disappear, it only makes less obstructive to those who live nearby.

  • Jason Scholten

    Anyone who calls the highway 23 expansion a “white elephant” has clearly never driven that stretch of highway. Most who have or do regularly, have been calling for this expansion for over 20 years. What the 1000 “Friends” don’t like to talk about is the fact that this highway is the main east/west route for half the state, and is heavily traveled by both through and local traffic. The road is curvy, with lots of blind corners. Traveled heavily by construction and farm equipment, and is a main shipping route for the state. Hundreds of accidents a year, dozens of deaths a year, all could be prevented by improving traffic flow. But, because some environmental group from out of the area disagrees with the expansion, we have to deal with this. Thanks for your “investigating” this before you posted it…

  • Jason Scholten

    Actually, the section that has been widened already, decades ago, has seen a sharp drop in both the severity and number of accidents in that stretch, even though the speed limit in that area has been raised to 65. If more lanes never fixes anything, why is the lane expansion from Kenosha to Milwaukee on I-94 not on this list? That project will cost Wisconsin several times what the 23 expansion will, yet essentially does the same thing for the same reason.

  • The FDOT cares more about Contractor Profits than Pedestrian Safety. Please help us stop the FDOT from fraudulently representing the ADA to justify obstructing our Pedestrian Right of Way. My Profile Pic shows one of the street light posts in the middle of the Bee Ridge Road Sidewalk. Utility Posts should be in the Utility Strip, or at the edge of the sidewalk, not the middle of the sidewalk. duh…
    – vision impaired disabled veteran

    The “Pedestrians Lives Matter” Campaign
    http://pedestrianslivesmatter.org

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