Highway Boondoggles: Widening I-95 Across Connecticut

Photo: Doug Kerr
Bucking the state’s longstanding recommendations, Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy says widening I-95 will fix congestion. Photo: Doug Kerr/Flickr via U.S. PIRG

Last year Congress passed a multi-year transportation bill. Like previous bills, it gives tens of billions of dollars to states every year to spend with almost no strings attached. How much of this federal funding will state DOTs devote to expensive, traffic-inducing highway projects that further entrench car dependence and sprawl?

In a new report, Highway Boondoggles 2 (the original came out in 2014), U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group teamed up to profile the most egregious examples of state DOTs that can’t shake the road expansion habit. Streetsblog will be serializing the case studies in the report, starting with this excerpt about Connecticut, which just lost GE to Boston

A long-dormant idea for a multi-billion-dollar expansion of I-95 is being promoted by the state’s governor as a fix for congestion, despite official studies dating back to 2002 recommending against any expansion of the highway, saying it would make congestion worse, extend traffic delays, and increase pollution.

Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy has proposed a 30-year, $100 billion plan to invest in transportation across the state. More than 10 percent of that spending, $11.2 billion, is dedicated to reversing decades of Connecticut’s planning priorities by adding an additional lane to I-95 across the entire state — 110 miles from the New York state line to the Rhode Island border.

Malloy says his proposal will reduce congestion, despite years of industry and academic research showing that widening highways is an expensive and ineffective way to solve congestion-related problems. “You can’t build your way out of congestion,” the chief planner of the Connecticut Department of Transportation told the Connecticut Post in October 2015.

Local knowledge dating back more than a decade also supports looking for solutions other than highway widening. In 1999, a consultant’s report came out identifying congestion along I-95 as a barrier to business interests across the state. A government-commissioned follow-up study was issued in 2002 with 150 recommendations for addressing the state’s transportation needs, none of which included widening I-95.

That report [PDF], released by the board of the Coastal Corridor Transportation Investment Area — which spans Fairfield and New Haven counties and a small portion of southern Litchfield County — found that congestion on I-95 was a problem in those counties, which are near New York City, but then went on to make plain that expanding the highway is not a solution:

Significant increase in road capacity… would be very expensive and would have negative environmental impacts. Moreover, adding capacity to highways induces additional traffic, as people take additional automobile trips and new development creates even more demand. It is now generally accepted that states cannot build their way out of congestion.

The report’s top recommendations specifically target congestion on I-95, but rather than proposing highway expansion, they endorse improved rail service for passengers and freight, and state policies “to encourage commuters to modify their travel patterns and behavior in such a way as to reduce single-occupant vehicle traffic and, by extension, traffic congestion.”

One example the report raises is adding variable tolls to the road at peak times, which could encourage people to shift their travel times, consolidate trips, or otherwise reduce their driving. A 2009 study found that doing so on I-95 and State Route 15 between the New York state border and Stratford in southwestern Connecticut could reduce the volume/capacity ratio by 10 percentage points on both roads and raise $40 billion. Investing that money in improving access to existing transit, building new transit connections, expanding rail capacity for freight traffic, and focusing development on transit-accessible areas could help further reduce congestion throughout the region. In fact, the 2002 state plan explicitly “opposes expanding vehicular capacity on I-95 west of New Haven… unless and until all reasonable alternative modes of transportation and strategies have been explored and put in place.”

There is a clear, proven, and obviously better choice for Connecticut: the rail line that parallels I-95 across the entire state, carrying the Metro-North rail service between New Haven and New York City, Shore Line East rail service between New Haven and New London, and the Amtrak Acela high-speed rail service along its entire length. Shifting the billions from highway expansion to rail improvement could deliver significant benefits, including meeting the governor’s goal of congestion reduction.

Rail was highlighted in that 2002 report as a major way to fight congestion. Metro-North’s potential was proven in a 2009 survey of Fairfield County businesses, which found, in the words of a 2011 Connecticut Transportation Strategy Board report, that “economic growth in the I-95 corridor continued even as congestion brought traffic on I-95… to a crawl.” The reason was simple: Though “highway capacity was exhausted, capacity still existed on [the] New Haven Line.”

As I-95 traffic in southwestern Connecticut fell an average of 0.8 percent a year from 2008 to 2014, New Haven Line ridership grew an average of 0.6 percent a year (see below). Rail improvements can improve train service and further reduce congestion on I-95, according to both the 2002 report and a 2014 study of the New Haven Line by the Regional Plan Association.

I-95_NHLine
Annual average daily ridership on Metro-North Railroad’s New Haven Line, and annual average daily traffic on I-95 in southwestern Connecticut, 2008-2014

Gov. Malloy has also called for increasing service on the New Haven Line: Part of his $100 billion transportation plan calls for $22 billion in spending on maintaining and improving the state’s rail system. Of that, $14.6 billion would go toward preserving and maintaining the existing system; $7.2 billion would pay for expansions to service.

Customer demand is already driving increased service frequency on the rail line. Five of the last seven years have seen historic ridership highs for the New Haven Line. In November 2014, Metro-North trains started coming every half-hour all day. Demand for that improved service contributed to the New Haven Line setting a new all-time ridership record in 2014. Calls have already come for service to increase to once every 10 or 15 minutes.

Even more demand for New Haven Line service may develop as a result of a slated extension of Metro-North service to Penn Station, to be paid for by New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

With limited financial resources at hand, Connecticut faces a choice between a vision of the future based on speedy and efficient rail service and one that expends vast resources on the expansion of a highway that is likely to remain just as congested afterwards as it is today.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    $100 Billion would Build 100,000 miles of protected bike lanes in CT.

  • Critical critic

    Here we go again. Some of LA’s freeways are 8 lanes in either direction and they have the worst traffic jams in the nation.

    Increasing service on the NH line is important, but 1 hour 30 minutes for what could be a 30 minute trip for the 73 mile leg to NYC is awful. When you ride true (read: not Acela) high speed rail and pass cars like they are standing still, you understand their value.

  • Joe R.

    Even getting the NYC-NH time under an hour would make it more than competitive with driving, including driving at 3AM. Yes, 30 minutes would be great but given the curvature of the NH, probably not possible without building a whole new ROW. Fixing the slowest spots on the NH line, increasing speed limits on the straighter portions above the present 70 or 75 mph, could result in much faster Acela and commuter rail service.

  • gneiss

    A big part of what the State could do to enhance transportation on the I-95 corridor east of New Haven, would be to reduce the reliance on automobile travel in each of the communities in that area by strengthening regional bus networks, bike lanes, as well as rail. Connecticut abolished it’s county government in 1960 and has continually suffered from regional coordination of it’s bus and inter-community street networks. Funding is usually available for either hyperlocal projects or those which have a state wide interest, which has limited the states ability to think on a regional level about how a transportation system could be used to provide service between their communities.

    In addition, the lack of regional land use planning has meant that communities constantly poach development opportunities, with the end result being that the dense cities are starved for revenue and have over-fast roads and highways built through them while the more suburban style towns get lavished with private development for greenfield sites.

  • VerificationEmailRequired

    It also builds a heck of a lot of BRT or LRT or streetcars or rail or runs a heck of a lot of upgraded, more frequent, expanded bus service. OR does all of the above!

  • Larry Littlefield

    They have to do something. These days everything bought in CT arrives by truck from Central NJ or eastern PA, and it all rides on I-95.

    The New Haven line needs to be rebuilt, but that won’t solve the freight problem.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    Charge the true cost of driving on I-95 would Eliminate congestion P D Q

  • Kevin Love

    I heard a rumor that railways can also carry freight.

  • Kevin Love

    That’s a million dollars per mile of protected bike lane. Seems a bit pricy.

  • kevd

    Oh, lots comes in on 84 – and a little bit on 91.

  • Intersections run about $140K each including signals, so that looks about right if you include the right-of-way acquisition.

  • One of the things we do here in TX to show what our sprawl looks like is to drop the outline of CT over one of our major metropolitan areas and look at the lights of our suburbs going beyond your borders in all 4 directions. Your entire state is smaller than one of our regional planning areas. We have 3 of those areas that are larger than CT.

    tl;dr CT is already a regional planning area but you are not planning well.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    $1 million per mile Is upper range of costs. $200,000 is lower range.

    At lower cost range, Gov could fund 500,000 miles of protected bike lanes in CT.

  • davistrain

    Having driven on I-95 in Connecticut a few times, I would say that in some sections, widening it would cause major disruption because there’s not much open space into which the roadway can be expanded without removing or relocating a lot of existing structures.

  • davistrain

    Unfortunately, railway companies don’t like dealing with small shippers. As someone once commented, he was familiar with a manufacturing plant that in the old days, loaded a boxcar full of shoes and other products every day or so. When that business dried up and moved away, the building became a center for electronic devices, and a whole day’s output could be loaded into a small delivery truck.

  • Devon Flory

    I would say widening I-95 that is two lanes in each direction to three would probably be a good idea as well as adding more transit from New Haven to the New York state line. The reason I say widening the the two laned sections is I drive 95 from the south central to south east portion of the state. The highway has many trucks and is very often congested even when it is not rush hour. During the Summer and Holidays in the summer expect a couple to a few hour delays on I-95 due to beach tourism traffic. That can be said for Casino events as well.

  • douglasawillinger

    I-95 should definitely be widened to at least 4 lanes per direction with an added outboard 2 lane carriageway per direction in spots, along with improvements to the parallel rail corridor.

    BOTH are needed, and the debate should be focused upon the specifics, with any construction being designed for long term expansion.

  • douglasawillinger

    I-405 is particularly bad as it is routed via a mountain pass with relatively few parallel routes.

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