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Posts from the "Boondoggles" Category

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Study: Corrupt States Spend More on Highways

In states with higher levels of corruption, public officials spend more on construction, roads and safety services. Image: Public Administration Review via Governing

A new study found a link between highway spending and official corruption. Map: Public Administration Review via Governing

A new academic study helps explain the enduring political popularity of expensive transportation boondoggles like Birmingham’s $4.7 billion Northern Beltline and Kentucky’s $2.6 billion Ohio River Bridges.

According to research published in the journal Public Administration Review, states with higher levels of public corruption spend more money on highways and construction. The study found highway and construction projects and police programs provide the most opportunities for lawmakers to enrich themselves, according to Governing Magazine, and are positively correlated with state levels of corruption. Meanwhile, highly corrupt states also spend relatively less on health, education, and welfare — categories that were less susceptible to graft and bribery, the report found.

Public corruption for each state was ranked based on 25,000 convictions between 1976 and 2008. Overall, the authors found, the 10 most corrupt states spend $1,300 more per person annually than the average state.

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Washington DOT Chief: Seattle’s Big Highway Tunnel Might Not Get Built

"Bertha," the digging machine that was to help build a buried highway in Seattle is broken down and might never get running. Photo: Washington State Department of Transportation

“Bertha,” the tunneling machine that’s supposed to clear the way for an underground highway in Seattle, might never get up and running again. Photo: Washington State DOT

Nearly five months after coming to a halt beneath the city of Seattle, Bertha — the largest tunnel boring machine in the world — is still immobilized. It had barely begun to clear space for the underground highway meant to replace the aging Alaskan Way Viaduct when it broke down late last year.

Construction crews are furiously digging a second hole in the ground to access Bertha and fix it. What happens when they reach the machine is still uncertain. Even the state’s top transportation official admits theres a “small possibility” that the highway tunnel might never be completed, reports Erica C. Barnett at SeattleMet :

On conservative host Dori Monson’s show on KIRO radio earlier today, state transportation secretary Lynn Peterson sounded this wakeup call: She acknowledged, surprisingly candidly, that there is a “small possibility” that the deep-bore tunnel will never get built. The only scenario in which that might happen, she added, is if the contractor, Seattle Tunnel Partners, and WSDOT discover that “the machine is not going to actually be fixable.”

“I would say it’s a small possibility, but we want to make sure that everyone understands that it’s a possibility.”

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Grassroots Efforts “Crushed” by Louisville’s $2.6 Billion Bridge Boondoggle

State leaders in Kentucky want to build this $2.6 billion monstrosity right next to downtown Louisville. Image: ##http://8664.org/mt-static/8664/demo/1578/1578_8664ORG_Crossroads.html## 8668##

State leaders in Kentucky wants to build this $2.6 billion monstrosity next to downtown Louisville. Image: 8664

At $2.6 billion, the Ohio River Bridges project in Louisville, Kentucky, is the costliest in the state’s history. It includes 18 elevated lanes, two enormously expensive bridges, a mammoth raised interchange, and a $225 million tunnel under an undeveloped suburban property (“Indiana’s Big Dig“).

For years, Louisville residents J.C. Stites and Tyler Allen fought for a more humane, down-to-earth solution. Their plan — 8664 (short for “Remove I-64″) — proposed tearing down the elevated portion of the highway that stands between downtown Louisville and the Ohio River waterfront, to help integrate this mega-project into its surroundings. But it seems their fight may be over.

For a while it seemed Stites and Allen were getting somewhere. More than 11,000 people signaled support for the pair’s highway-to-boulevard proposal at 8664.org. (This short video illustrates their proposed alternative.) Though the pair built a large grassroots organization to back the highway teardown plan, enthusiasm for the 8664 project never translated to political muscle.

“They crushed us,” Allen says.

This week, on short notice, state lawmakers approved $753 million in bonding for the Ohio River Bridges project, which they hope to fund partly with tolls. The bonds were rated BBB, just barely investment grade. The project also expects to receive a $452 million federal TIFIA loan, according to Business First in Louisville.

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Meet the $4.7 Billion Birmingham Highway Only Cronyism Could Build

It is really a testament to how dominant the highway industrial complex has become that we even have to talk about Birmingham’s Northern Beltline, a $4.7 billion outerbelt first proposed in the 1960s. But with backing from big companies that would reap windfall real estate profits from the highway — and with a U.S. Senator working to secure federal funding — this boondoggle might actually get built.

This 1960s-era outerbelt proposal Birmingham is pursuing would cost $4.7 billion. Image: Birmingham News

The six-lane, 52-mile highway would be fantastically expensive for any state. Even on a per mile basis — $90 million — it is extravagant, making it one of the country’s most expensive highway projects, and by far the priciest one in state history.

To make matters worse, by any measurable outcome the project wouldn’t be all that useful. Regional transportation officials have estimated that this project would reduce congestion on existing freeways by a mere 1 to 3 percent. That’s a big part of the reason, when those planners ranked the 50 most important transportation projects for the Birmingham area, the Northern Beltline was ranked a lowly 36th. (All the remaining 49 projects, by the way, could be completed for $1 billion less than the total cost of the Northern Beltline.)

Even as a job creator — its ostensible purpose — the Northern Beltline underwhelms. A study commissioned by the Coalition for Regional Transportation, a pro-highway non-profit, estimated the project would produce 70,000 jobs and $7 billion in investment. But Chattanooga’s Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies [PDF] says that study — completed by the Center for Business and Economic Research — was seriously flawed.

“The CBER data confuse permanent jobs with jobs available in any one year and rely on outdated Federal Highway Administration data,” said Ochs Center authors Ken Chilton and Peter B. Meyer.

Chilton and Meyer, on the other hand, estimate the project could produce as few as 2,800 jobs during any of the project years. That equals one job per $456,000 invested.

Plus, Chilton and Meyer say the CBER study examined only benefits of the Beltline and ignored its costs, and that it examined those benefits only against the “build nothing” alternative.

Ochs, meanwhile, estimates the project would attract only 372 businesses and 6,527 residents. Even that paltry influx could occur only after significant additional cost to taxpayers, because sewers need to be built in the undeveloped area the highway would serve.

That led Chilton and Meyer to conclude: “This project would be a poor investment of limited taxpayer dollars given its enormous cost and over-inflated economic benefits.”

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Here They Are: The Best and Worst American Transportation Projects

Which transportation projects are the smartest investments, and which are the most ridiculous boondoggles? The Sierra Club has put together a solid list in a new report titled “Smart Choices, Less Traffic: The 50 Best and Worst Transportation Projects in the United States.”

Boondoggle: The widening of I-5 in San Diego is expected to cost $4.5 billion. Photo: Transnet

The Sierra Club evaluated each project based on five criteria, including its effects on oil use, the environment, public health, land use, and the economy. A glance through the list quickly reveals both who is innovating for the future and who is wasting staggering sums on backwards projects, with most of the good ones originating from local governments and transit agencies, and the worst coming from state DOTs.

“Old highway spending habits die hard,” write report authors Rachel Butler, Ann Mesnikoff and Megan McLean. “U.S. transportation policy is largely getting it wrong.”

The list of “worst” projects is dominated by 1950s-style mega-highways and road expansions, the cost of which frequently reaches into the billions. Among the lowlights is Dallas’s Trinity Freeway, which costs an astounding $222 million per mile. Also notable is Phoenix’s proposed $2 billion South Mountain Freeway, a pricey eight-mile sprawl generator, which, the Sierra Club reports, hasn’t gotten past the planning stages due to lack of public support. Another worthy “worst” is the Interstate 5 widening in north San Diego County, which would widen the road to 12 lanes for the go-for-broke price of $4.5 billion.

Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct — a Big Dig-style buried highway — is also singled out in the Sierra Club’s Hall of Shame. This project, which won out over the idea of replacing a damaged elevated highway with an at-grade boulevard, barely runs two miles but is expected to cost more than $3 billion. Another national embarrassment is I-269 in Memphis — the city’s second outerbelt — which the Sierra Club describes as “mainly a real estate development scheme.” Florida’s proposed 150-mile Heartland Expressway, through some of the state’s last undeveloped natural environments, wins mention as well — not only because FDOT has come out and said it can’t afford the $5.6 billion pricetag, but because it is ethically suspect as well. One of the central advocates is a state senator who, as a major land owner on the corridor, also stands to reap a windfall from its completion.

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“Indiana’s Big Dig” Raises Bar on Absurdly Wasteful Highway Boondoggles

“Why is Indiana Paying $255 Million for a Tunnel Under Kentucky’s Trees?” asked the Indianapolis Star in a recent headline.

The states of Indiana and Kentucky will pay more than $500 million to build a tunnel under these trees. Photo: Indianapolis Star

The paper was referring to the $2.6 billion I-265 bridge over the Ohio River, a joint project of Indiana and Kentucky. In a lot of ways, this project is your classic highway boondoggle. It involves a bridge widening to complete Louisville’s outerbelt, and will purportedly help reduce “bottlenecks” caused by suburban commuters.

Clearly, the powers that be in these two states are thinking from the “more roads equals less traffic” mindset. What’s truly fascinating is how far they were willing to take it in this case.

The most controversial element of this project, and there are many, is a plan to build a roughly $255 million tunnel under the grounds of a private residence — the “tunnel under the trees.” Costs for this expense will be split evenly between the two states.

So Indiana — to the outrage of transit supporters — is plunking down more than $100 million to build a tunnel of roughly 2,000 feet just over the border in Kentucky. Why?

The answer, according to Aaron Renn at the Urbanophile, is that “[Gov.] Mitch Daniels wants to.”

But the official explanation is that the private residence in the path of the proposed bridge is a registered National Historic Landmark. It got its protected status 20 years ago, due to the efforts of a group that wanted to stop this particular road project.

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