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Denver Residents Sue to Stop John Hickenlooper’s Highway Boondoggle

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Children at Swansea Elementary School have taken recess next to I-70 for decades. Widening the highway by four lanes will make the air they breathe more harmful. Photo: David Sachs

North Denver neighborhood organizations and the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit in federal court today to stop Colorado DOT’s I-70 boondoggle, which will increase traffic and create more air pollution for generations to come if it’s built.

The communities around the highway are exposed to elevated levels of particulate pollution, which leads to higher rates of chronic cardiovascular diseases. Widening the highway by four lanes will only make the problem worse, but Governor John Hickenlooper is letting his DOT move forward with the project.

Governor Hickenlooper has let his DOT proceed with a project that will make air quality for north Denver neighborhoods worse for generations.

“CDOT now has a golden opportunity to correct a half-century of harm done to Denver citizens,” said Becky English of Sierra Club’s Rocky Mountain Chapter. “We hope this lawsuit causes CDOT to investigate removing the traffic and pollution from north Denver neighborhoods.”

To receive federal funding, Colorado DOT determined that adding four travel lanes would not violate national air quality standards. Those findings were based on newer EPA guidelines — “issued with no public notice last November” — that advocates say are too lenient [PDF]. Under the EPA’s previous guidelines, CDOT’s claims wouldn’t fly, according to the lawsuit, which names the EPA as the defendant.

Here’s more from the statement:

Denver Environmental Health reported in 2014 that residents in the north Denver neighborhoods adjacent to I-70 experience a 70% greater rate of mortality from heart disease than other neighborhoods in Denver not affected by highway pollution, and 40% greater frequency of urgent care for children suffering from severe asthma compared to other parts of Denver. CDOT’s analysis of air quality after the proposed expansion of I-70 shows a further degradation of air quality. This will exacerbate these health impacts, especially on seniors and children in the primarily minority and low-income communities of Globeville, Elyria and Swansea.

“The residents of the Elyria and Swansea know many neighbors who, because of the pollution, have suffered debilitating diseases, died of pollution-related causes, or moved away,” said Drew Dutcher, president of the Elyria and Swansea Neighborhood Coalition. “We need to protect ourselves.”

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Highway Boondoggles: Pennsylvania’s Mon-Fayette Expressway Plan

Pennsylvania's $1.7 billion Mon-Fayette Expressway. Image: U.S. PIRG

Pennsylvania’s $1.7 billion Mon-Fayette Expressway. Image: U.S. PIRG

In a new report, Highway Boondoggles 2, U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group profile the most wasteful highway projects that state DOTs are building. Today we highlight Pennsylvania’s $1.7 billion Mon-Fayette Expressway plan, a highway plan that has outlived its reason for being. 

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission and the state Department of Transportation have been trying to build a highway from rural western Pennsylvania into downtown Pittsburgh through the Monongahela Valley since the 1960s.

First, it was billed as a way to support the region’s industrial boom; later, after the collapse of the steel industry, supporters of the road project argued it would bring economic revitalization to the area by connecting it to downtown Pittsburgh.

By 2002, the four-lane Mon-Fayette Expressway had reached from northern West Virginia to Jefferson Hills. The remaining segments, connecting Route 51 to I-376 in suburban Monroeville and, via a spur, downtown Pittsburgh, were under official consideration.

Plans to build a new toll road, criticized for its potential to damage communities and harm economic development opportunities, were resuscitated in 2015. It is being justified using traffic predictions for 2020 that were made more than a decade ago.

A project analysis by community members and experts determined that building the rest of the proposed route would harm the local communities and reduce – rather than increase – the likelihood of economic recovery in an area that was the epicenter of the steel boom and its subsequent collapse. The groups called instead for investment in transit, bicycle and pedestrian routes, and improving existing roads.

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Highway Boondoggles: Ohio DOT’s $1.2 Billion Portsmouth Bypass

In a new report, Highway Boondoggles 2, U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group profile the most wasteful highway projects that state DOTs are building. Today we highlight Ohio DOT’s $1.2 billion Portsmouth Bypass, the most expensive and, arguably, least-needed transportation project in the state’s history. 

A major highway project that scored near the bottom of the state’s priority list is under way in a county, and a state, where driving has declined and existing roads are in desperate need of repair. In June 2015, a private contractor for the Ohio Department of Transportation began preliminary work to build a 16-mile, four-lane highway bypassing Portsmouth, a 20,000-person city across the Ohio River from Kentucky in southern Ohio.

Portsmouth, an Appalachian city of about 20,000, is in line for a $1.2 billion creatively funded bypass from the state of Ohio. Map: U.S. PIRG

Portsmouth, an Appalachian town of about 20,000, is where Ohio DOT wants to build a $1.2 billion bypass subsidized by the state’s taxpayers. Map: U.S. PIRG

It would roughly parallel State Route 335/489 from Sciotoville as far north as Shumway Hollow Road, and then cut northwest to Lucasville. The department claims no transportation outcomes or benefits, apart from allowing drivers to avoid several traffic lights, but nevertheless says the project would forestall feared future congestion at several intersections on U.S. 23 by building a road to draw traffic elsewhere.

The Portsmouth Bypass, recently officially renamed the Southern Ohio Veterans Memorial Highway, would be among Ohio’s most expensive road projects ever and its first ever public-private partnership for highway construction.

The corporate partner is the Portsmouth Gateway Group, led by a construction firm called Dragados, the company in charge of a multi-billion-dollar tunnel-boring project that stalled under Seattle in 2013. The construction is slated to cost $429 million, and the company expects to spend $557 million over 35 years of operating and maintaining the highway. State funds spent over that period will total $1.2 billion.

The money will primarily come from taxpayer subsidies, in the form of direct government investment, government loans, and tax-advantaged bonds. Those subsidies would encumber future budgets, eating up money that could be used in the future for education, health care, and other necessities.

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Highway Boondoggles: Iowa’s U.S. 20 Widening

In a new report, Highway Boondoggles 2, U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group profile the most wasteful highway projects that state DOTs are building. Today we highlight the proposed 40-mile widening of U.S. 20 in Iowa, which will cost many times as much as fixing all the state’s structurally deficient highway bridges. 

In June 2015, the Iowa Transportation Commission, the public body that sets the state’s transportation priorities, voted to spend $286 million on widening 40 miles of U.S. 20 between Moville and Early from two to four lanes.

The section of U.S. 20 in Iowa that would be widened is shown in red. It will cost 40 percent of the revenue the state will receive from a recent gas tax. Image: U.S. PIRG

The section of U.S. 20 in Iowa that would be widened is shown in red. This single project will consume a significant chunk of the revenue collected from a statewide gas tax increase. Image: U.S. PIRG

The road passes through a rural area of northwest Iowa where population has barely changed since 2005, and isn’t expected to change through at least 2040. State transportation officials want to draw more truck traffic to and through the area, diverting some of the congestion now facing I-80 to U.S. 20 instead.

The state is saying the road needs to be built now to accommodate traffic that may develop more than 20 years into the future. Yet its projection of future traffic anticipates vehicle travel increases on that section of road far faster than recent data suggest. The existing two-lane rural highway can handle the traffic volume expected in 2039 in most locations, based on actual recent traffic growth.

Iowa’s highway design guidelines for two-lane rural arterials specify that they can handle more than 5,000 cars a day. If the 2011 through 2014 average growth rate were to remain stable through 2039, four of the nine relevant traffic counters on U.S. 20 would not see numbers exceeding 4,751 and a fifth would be at 5,154.

Iowa’s highway design guidelines are not as specific as other states, but according to Wisconsin’s highway design guidelines, the existing road could handle up to 8,700 cars a day. Only one of the nine traffic counters, east of Correctionville, would see daily traffic exceeding that level in 2039. To the extent that segment sees such a traffic increase, more localized solutions could be explored, rather than widening miles upon miles of highway two decades in advance.

The money slated to be spent on this unnecessary highway expansion could be used to restore Iowa’s existing roads, which are in bad shape and getting worse. In 2015, Iowa lawmakers passed an increased gas tax expected to raise $500 million between 2016 and 2020. The statement of legislative intent attached to the hike says, “It is the intent of the general assembly that 100 percent of the revenue produced as a result of the increase in the excise taxes… shall be used exclusively for critical road and bridge construction projects that significantly extend the life of such assets.”

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Highway Boondoggles: Texas State Highway 249 Extension

In a new report, Highway Boondoggles 2, U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group profile the most wasteful highway projects that state DOTs are building. Today we highlight the proposed 30-mile extension of State Highway 249 in Texas, which the state DOT wants to gouge through communities that already suffer from too much air pollution. 

Citing outdated traffic projections, the Texas Department of Transportation claims it needs to spend between $337 million and $389 million building a 30-mile six-lane highway from Pinehurst in Montgomery County through Todd Mission in Grimes County to College Station.

Texas wants to spend close to $400 million expanding this highway. Image: Wikipedia

Texas wants to spend close to $400 million expanding this highway. Image: Wikipedia

Having in April 2015 opened a $335 million, six-lane, six-mile tolled expansion of State Highway 249 from the Sam Houston Parkway to Tomball in Harris County, the Texas Department of Transportation is working to extend the highway another 30 miles, all the way to College Station, home to Texas A&M University.

The project is proposed in two phases, first connecting Pinehurst to Todd Mission and then reaching to Navasota, a suburb of College Station. The first phase — which, if approved, could see work begin in 2016 — would run through an area that is already suffering from ozone air pollution, to which vehicle traffic is a major contributor.

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Highway Boondoggles: New Mexico’s Paseo del Volcan Extension

The traffic projections used to justify the Paseo del Volcan Extension were formulated 15 years ago. Since then, population growth in Albuquerque has outpaced vehicle miles traveled.

The traffic projections used to justify the Paseo del Volcan Extension were formulated 15 years ago. Since then, population growth in Albuquerque has outpaced vehicle miles traveled.

In a new report, Highway Boondoggles 2, U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group profile the most wasteful highway projects that state DOTs are building. The proposed Paseo del Volcan Extension, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is a textbook example of a project intended to induce and subsidize suburban sprawl.

The idea of building a road through the desert northwest of Albuquerque first surfaced in 1990 as a way to enable sprawling development. Getting local, state and federal financing for a road through the vacant region was crucial to the profit dreams of Westland Development, the private company formed to manage an enormous tract of land initially granted in 1692 by the king of Spain to New World settlers.

By 2001, a plan for the road had been approved by federal regulators. But in 2010, with the road still unbuilt, Westland Development sold many of its assets at auction.

In 2015 the land’s new owners, Western Albuquerque Land Holdings, tried to revitalize plans for the $96 million, 30-mile road, whose route would start near the Santa Ana Star Center on Unser Boulevard in Rio Rancho, heading west and then south through Sandoval and Bernalillo counties to connect with I-40 beyond Petroglyph National Monument.

They didn’t bother updating the original document claiming the road was needed. Finalized in 2001, it says, “The 20-year growth projected for northwest Albuquerque and the Rio Rancho portion of Sandoval County would be accompanied by additional travel demand.” From 2000 to 2010, the Albuquerque metropolitan area’s population grew an average of 2.0 percent a year, but vehicle-miles traveled grew far less quickly: 1.3 percent annually, on average.

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Highway Boondoggles: Washington’s Puget Sound Gateway Project

The $3.1 billion Washington proposes pouring into this highway system could more than fix every deficient bridge in the state.

The $3.1 billion Washington wants to lavish on these highways would be more than enough to fix every structurally deficient bridge in the state.

In a new report, Highway Boondoggles 2, U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group profile the most wasteful highway projects that state DOTs are building. Today we look at a classic — Washington’s $3 billion “Puget Sound Gateway Project.”

Washington plans to spend billions on the Puget Sound Gateway project to “relieve congestion,” but if anything the project will increase it. Furthermore, it is planned for an area where traffic has been stagnant for more than a decade, and where other transportation needs are clamoring for attention.

The Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) has proposed construction of a $2.8 billion to $3.1 billion project between Seattle and Tacoma: expanding State Route 167 between Tacoma and Puyallup by two lanes and State Route 509 from Kent to Burien by two lanes. Also proposed is adding two new express lanes to Interstate 5 between the ports of Tacoma and Seattle, which could be used by drivers willing to pay for an expedited trip through the new lanes.

Toll revenue would only contribute $330 million toward the total cost of the project from the time it is completed in 2021 until 2060. WSDOT has already warned that more than a billion dollars in additional state borrowing will likely be needed to cover the project’s costs.

Justification for the project relies on claims by WSDOT that expanding routes 167 and 509 will bolster Washington’s export economy by increasing the ease and efficiency of the transport of commercial goods along the routes and to the ports. WSDOT also claims the project would reduce congestion through the region.

But the state’s own data show that building the project would substantially increase traffic on I-5, inducing cars and trucks to drive nearly 2 million more miles a year on the highway by 2030, and drivers to spend more than 25,000 hours behind the wheel on I-5 in that year than if the project was not built. In addition, traffic on routes 167 and 509 remained stagnant between 2003 and 2014.

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Highway Boondoggles: North Carolina’s I-77 Express Lanes

North Carolina's I-77 Express Lanes. Image: NCDOT

North Carolina’s I-77 Express Lanes will cost $647 million. Image: NCDOT

In a new report, Highway Boondoggles 2, U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group profile the most wasteful highway projects that state DOTs are building. Today we look at an expansion of I-77 in North Carolina that circumvented the normal project selection process thanks to a dubious financing plan. 

A $637 million highway project that doesn’t merit funding through North Carolina’s normal transportation prioritization process is moving forward in part because a private company is willing to contribute some money — but taxpayers are still going to have to put up hundreds of millions of dollars.

I-77 has a carpool lane running in each direction from the I-277 spur into Uptown Charlotte, and extending 26 miles north to Mooresville. The state Department of Transportation has a plan to convert those carpool lanes into tolled express lanes that would be available for solo drivers while remaining free for carpoolers. These are sometimes called HOT (High Occupancy/Tolled) lanes.

The proposal would also widen the highway between Charlotte and Cornelius (exit 28), where an additional express lane would be built in each direction. Between exits 28 and 36, the single converted carpool lane would be the only express lane.

There would be no charge for buses, motorcyclists, or cars with three or more occupants (including the driver), but beyond that, tolls would be set by the private contractor and would vary based on times of day. Early proposals suggest a round-trip journey between Mooresville and Charlotte during peak hours could cost as much as $10 each way. That amount could double (in constant dollars) by 2035, according to project documents.

Total toll payments are expected to be $13 billion over the life of the state’s 50-year contract with the company, according to documents.

In 2014, the project scored low when assessed according to state criteria governing transportation project investments, the NCDOT’s chief deputy secretary told local officials in May 2015. There are so many projects ahead of it on the priority list that the department didn’t anticipate the express lanes would be funded for at least 20 years.

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Highway Boondoggles: Widening I-70 in Denver

The unnecessary widening of I-70 in Denver would cost an additional $58 million. Image: Colorado DOT

Widening I-70 in Denver instead of just repairing it will cost an additional $58 million. Image: Colorado DOT

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 wasteful highway projects that state DOTs are building. Streetsblog will be serializing the case studies in the report. Today, we look at the widening of I-70 in Denver, a project with a potentially high social and economic cost. 

The need to tear down the viaduct carrying I-70 through the center of Denver is clear, but widening it while while it undergoes much-needed replacement would waste tens of millions of dollars.

The bridge, which was built in 1964, first had detectable cracks in 1981. Since then, it has required many repairs. A major 1997 project installed rods intended to reduce cracking. In 2005, the weight of vehicles on the viaduct was limited in hopes of extending the bridge’s life.

But the bridge continued to crumble. By 2010, the bridge was considered “structurally deficient,” a federal designation indicating significant problems in its structure. A $30 million maintenance project in 2010 was expected to give the viaduct another 10 to 15 years of service. But just four years later, the Colorado Department of Transportation announced that some of the work done in 1997 was failing. The repairs themselves needed to be repaired.

The viaduct is also an eyesore whose removal has been sought by the local community for many years. Since it was built, neighbors have complained that it divides their community, which is one of Denver’s poorest.

The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) has proposed replacing the viaduct with a trench for the highway, and partially covering the road with a park. In September 2015, CDOT put out a formal call for private companies willing to finance and build the project. However, CDOT is also proposing to widen the highway.

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Highway Boondoggles: California’s 710 Tunnel

This pair of highway tunnels linking I-710 from Alhambra to I-210/ SR-710 in Pasadena will cost between $3.2 billion to $5.6 billion. Map: Caltrans

This pair of highway tunnels linking I-710 from Alhambra to I-210/
SR-710 in Pasadena will cost between $3.2 billion to $5.6 billion. Map: Caltrans

A proposal to drill a pair of highway tunnels is the most expensive, most polluting, least effective option for solving the San Gabriel Valley’s transportation problems.

A highway linking I-710 from Alhambra to I-210/ SR-710 in Pasadena was first proposed in the late 1950s. Ever since, efforts to build the highway have run into obstacles including insufficient funding, high environmental impact, and community objections.

In 1998, a proposal to build an eight-lane highway got so far as to receive final federal approval. That, too, was halted by concerns about environmental protection and historic preservation. The project saw renewed life in 2008 when Los Angeles County voters approved Measure R, a half-cent sales tax increase over the next 30 years, slated to raise $40 billion to be spent on a wide range of transportation projects. The majority — 65 percent — of that money was dedicated to improve the region’s transit system, including expanding bus and rail service Among the projects included in the plan was a “SR 710 Gap Closure” project to connect the northern and southern spurs of the 710, which was allocated $780 million.

A study released in March 2015 by the California Department of Transportation and the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) identified four problems with the local area’s transportation system: it is inefficient, freeways are congested, local streets are also congested, and the area is poorly served by transit.

The report studied four major options for addressing these problems:

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