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The Dallas Trinity Parkway Plan Horrifies Even Its Earliest Champions

Every river needs a nine-lane highway running alongside it to enhance its scenic qualities, don't you think? Image from a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers briefing presented to the Dallas City Council last August

Every river needs a nine-lane highway running alongside it to enhance its scenic qualities, don’t you think? This gauzy rendering comes from a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers briefing presented to the Dallas City Council last August.

A recent report by U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group, “Highway Boondoggles: Wasted Money and America’s Transportation Future,” examines 11 of the most wasteful, least justifiable road projects underway in America right now. Here’s the latest installment in our series profiling the various bad decisions that funnel so much money to infrastructure that does no good. 

The Trinity Parkway is a proposed nine-mile, six-lane urban highway (with tolls) that would run along the Trinity River through the heart of Dallas. Proponents claim that it is needed to relieve crushing regional traffic congestion that they expect will only worsen over time. But planning documents suggest that the $1.5 billion project would have only very limited impact on congestion and would be susceptible to flood damage.

A growing chorus of city leaders is asking whether the highway is really compatible with a Dallas that is experiencing major urban revitalization driven in part by expansion of public transportation and quality of life improvements that would be hampered by a vast new highway.

This project has been justified in part by forecasts of rapid growth in traffic in the project area in the decades to come. In most parts of the project area, however, planners are anticipating far greater growth in driving between now and 2035 than actually took place between 2007 and 2012, the most recent years for which traffic data are publicly available. Indeed, traffic actually declined between 2007 and 2012 at eight of 12 specific locations affected by the route where officials forecast traffic to increase by 2035.

Would you trust these models to tell you where to build a highway? Image: U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group

Would you trust these models to tell you where to build a highway? Image: U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group

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WisDOT Falls Back on Old Data to Justify Double-Decker Urban Highway

Does this chart cry out for more roadway capacity to you? Image: U.S. PIRG and Frontier Group

Does this chart cry out for more roadway capacity to you? Image: U.S. PIRG and Frontier Group

U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group released a report yesterday, “Highway Boondoggles: Wasted Money and America’s Transportation Future.” In it, they examine 11 of the most wasteful, least justifiable road projects underway in America right now.

Here’s the latest installment in our series profiling the various bad decisions that funnel so much money to infrastructure that does no good. Of course, at least one of these case studies was bound to be about Wisconsin…

In Milwaukee, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation has proposed expanding a segment of I-94 that runs east-west through the city. WisDOT wants to increase the capacity of I-94, widening the road in places and adding a second deck to the highway for a narrow stretch that is bounded by three cemeteries — at a cost of $800 million over and above just repairing the existing road.

Local officials have registered their opposition publicly, and have asked WisDOT to study alternatives, including those that would not expand the highway. Members of the community have advocated against the widening and in support of transit, bicycle and pedestrian projects — as well as repair of existing roads — instead. WisDOT projects that traffic will increase in the corridor, but traffic counts have been declining in recent years.

Other transportation modes could use significant investment. State funding for the Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) budget has been slashed, leading to route restructuring, curtailment of service and fare increases, all of which have made MCTS buses less convenient and less useful. Research by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Economic Development found that at least 77,000 jobs in the Milwaukee metropolitan area became inaccessible by transit due to cuts in service since 2001. (Fully 43 percent of MCTS riders use its buses to get to work; 52 percent do not have a valid driver’s license and 23 percent choose to ride the bus despite the availability of a car.)

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What AASHTO’s “Top Projects” Tell Us About State DOT Leadership

If you can build a project fast and under budget, AASHTO will love it, no matter how little sense it makes. Photo: Citizens Transportation Commission

Who can build the biggest road slab the fastest? Those seem to be the major criteria used by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials to determine the “best” projects by state DOTs across the country.

In another sign that most state Departments of Transportation should still be called “highway departments,” there are no transit projects on AASHTO’s “top 10″ projects list this year. The closest thing to one is California’s Oakland-Bay Bridge, which was “built to accommodate future expansions in light rail, bus, and other modes of transportation.”

Many of the projects listed are bridge repairs (and emergency bridge repairs), which are important. But the list is also larded with highway expansions.

In Ohio, AASHTO showers praise on a $200 million project to bypass the town of Nelsonville, population 5,400. The project earned a nod for “reliev[ing] a major congestion problem” in rural southeast Ohio.

The most ludicrous selection is probably Segment E of Houston’s Grand Parkway. This is a $320 million portion of a proposed 185-mile third outerbelt for the city. Proponents of the project have openly admitted it is more about inducing sprawl than addressing any transportation problem. The Texas Department of Transportation, mired in financial woes, has allowed real estate interests in Houston to more or less dictate where money will be spent. Whether the state will be able to find the funds to complete the $5.4 billion loop is an open question.

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Southern California Road Agency Courts Bankruptcy With Highway Addition

California 241 needs an extension so more people can not use it. Photo: Transportation Corridor Agencies via U.S. PIRG and Frontier Group

California 241 needs an extension so more people can not use it. Photo: Transportation Corridor Agencies via U.S. PIRG and Frontier Group

Today, U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group released a new report, “Highway Boondoggles: Wasted Money and America’s Transportation Future.” In it, they examine 11 of the most wasteful, least justifiable road projects underway in America right now.

This week we’ve previewed the report with posts about the proposed Effingham Parkway in Savannah, Georgia and the harebrained scheme to widen I-240 through Asheville, North Carolina. Here we continue with an egregious example from the Golden State. 

Southern California’s toll road agency has proposed extending an existing toll highway that might eventually span inland Orange County and connect to Interstate 5. The number of cars on previous sections of the highway, however, have failed to meet projections. Also, the agency is already struggling to avoid default on its debts.

California 241 is one of several toll roads in Orange County built and operated by the legislature-created Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA). California officials enabled the creation of toll roads in the area in the late 1980s amid both a shortage of state transportation funding and the perception of insatiable demand for more highways.

Traffic on California 241, however, hasn’t met official projections for a decade. In recent years — and especially since the collapse of the housing bubble in 2007 — driving on existing sections of California 241 has declined.

The TCA measures road use by counting the number of transactions conducted by toll payers on the combined Foothill/Eastern Toll Roads, which include not only Route 241 but also Routes 133 and 261. The TCA’s count shows fewer transactions in fiscal year 2014 than in fiscal 2004. As indicated by the dotted trend line below, there were about 32 million fewer transactions in fiscal year 2014 than would have been expected if the trend from 2000 to 2006 had continued.

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Will NCDOT Break the Bank on an 8-Lane Highway Through Asheville?

North Carolina thinks this justifies doubling highway capacity through a walkable, bikeable city. Image: U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group

North Carolina thinks this justifies doubling highway capacity through a walkable, bikeable city. Image: U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group

Tomorrow, U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group will release a report titled, “Highway Boondoggles: Wasted Money and America’s Transportation Future.” In it, they examine 11 of the most wasteful, least needed road projects underway in America right now.

Yesterday we published our first preview of the report, the story of the bizarre wishful thinking behind the proposed Effingham Parkway in Savannah, Georgia. Here we continue with a look at North Carolina’s bright idea to expand a road through a thriving city for no reason. 

North Carolina officials have proposed expanding I-240, which runs through downtown Asheville and connects I-26 southwest of Asheville to other highway routes northwest of the city. Local residents, however, have questioned whether the project as currently designed would damage a mature, livable neighborhood to build road space that is not actually needed.

The I-26 project is a complex mix of reconstruction, rerouting and expansion of Asheville’s highway network. The $400 million to $600 million project is divided into three major subsections — each of which has been the subject of intense debate — including the proposed widening of 4.3 miles of four-lane highway through West Asheville to eight lanes, plus an additional auxiliary lane on each side and widened shoulders.

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Highway Boondoggle Case Study #1: Georgia’s Effingham Parkway

?The Effingham Parkway expansion is premised on the idea that the Panama Canal expansion will see more cargo coming through Georgia ports -- but there are many holes in that logic. Image: Georgia Ports Authority via U.S. PIRG and Frontier Group

The Effingham Parkway expansion is premised on the idea that the Panama Canal expansion will see more cargo coming through Georgia ports — but there are many holes in that logic. Image: Georgia Ports Authority via U.S. PIRG and Frontier Group

This week, U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group will release a report titled, “Highway Boondoggles: Wasted Money and America’s Transportation Future.” In it, they examine 11 case studies of some of the more wasteful, least needed roads being built in America right now.

At a time when Americans are driving less and government traffic projections are alarmingly out of sync with actual trends, states should be cautious about costly highway expansion. Instead, many states are charging ahead with misguided projects that will empty their coffers of funds needed to maintain existing infrastructure, among other things.

Between 2009 and 2011, states spent 55 percent of their road dollars on expansions to less than 1 percent of their roads, underfunding the other 99 percent to the point where many roads and bridges fell into dangerous disrepair.

Here’s a preview of the report’s exposé of reckless state road spending. We begin with an effing doozy: the Effingham Parkway in Savannah, Georgia.

Transportation officials in a rural area northwest of Savannah, Georgia, are worried that an existing state highway will be unable to cope with growing traffic volumes if the hoped-for industrial expansion and resulting population increase occur. Their proposal is a new $37.4 million highway. Recent trends, however, suggest that traffic isn’t growing as quickly as anticipated, raising questions about whether the new highway is necessary.

The proposed Effingham Parkway is a $37.4 million road that would run parallel to the existing Georgia Route 21. Connecting the new highway to other existing local roads will require spending an additional $11.5 million on nearby road work. State plans include expansion to four lanes in the future, and specify a total price tag of $100 million.

Traffic on Route 21, however, has failed to grow at the rate anticipated by officials along most of the relevant length. Of five locations on Route 21 parallel to the proposed parkway where both projections and traffic counts were available, only one saw traffic increase at an average rate higher than is expected to happen if the Effingham Parkway is not built. The other locations saw traffic rise far less than projected, stay flat, or even drop.

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Wisconsin’s Highway Spending Mania Makes Less Sense Every Day

Road expansion projects in Wisconsin are gobbling up money that could be spent to repair what already exists and improve transit, bike, and pedestrian infrastructure.

Wisconsin isn’t known as a state that makes smart use of transportation dollars, whether it’s Scott Walker rejecting federal funds for high-speed rail service, denying funds for what would have been Milwaukee’s first suburban commuter rail service, or cutting millions in state aid for transit. Now a new report from the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group (WISPIRG) sheds makes it perfectly clear just how imbalanced the state’s transportation funding priorities have gotten [PDF].

The report highlights wasteful highway expansion projects slated to cost $2.8 billion. That’s on top of the $2.5 billion spent on such projects in the past two budgets. These projects would expand highways in Madison, Milwaukee, and Fond du Lac where traffic has either stagnated or dropped. Wisconsin’s profligate spending on highway expansions not only diverts money from other ways of getting around, is also shortchanges maintenance of roads that already exist.

Wisconsin could afford to restore previously-cut transit funding, increase transit operations and capital funding, invest millions in bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, and increase funding for state and local roads — all for the next ten years — for less than half what it plans to spend on highway expansion in the next two years alone.

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Missouri Says No to Amendment 7′s Monster Tax Hike for Roads

Amendment 7 would have helped pay for road expansions like this diverging diamond on Stadium Boulevard. Image: ##http://www.modot.org/central/major_projects/Boone740_PublicHearingMay2011.htm##MoDOT##

Amendment 7 would have helped pay for road expansions like this diverging diamond on Stadium Boulevard. Image: MoDOT

Last night, Missourians decided overwhelmingly to reject a ballot initiative that would have raised the sales tax by three-quarters of a cent to pay, almost exclusively, for roads. It would have been the largest tax increase in the state’s history.

Voters voted 59 percent to 41 percent to reject the tax.

“It’s difficult to pass a tax increase in Missouri,” said Terry Ganey, spokesman for the opposition group Missourians for Better Transportation Solutions. “It’s impossible to pass an unfair tax increase in Missouri.”

Missourians for Better Transportation Solutions opposed the tax, saying 85 percent of the $5.4 billion it would have raised over 10 years would have gone toward roads, with just 7 percent for transit and a small fraction for local governments. The measure would have made nearly every purchase more expensive for everyone, whether they drive or not, while freezing gas taxes and prohibiting new tolls. That’s essentially a free pass for drivers while the state forces the general population to foot the bill for new roadway capacity the state doesn’t need. Missouri’s cities already have more highway capacity than most, and the state’s population is barely growing.

While the construction industry tried to sell the initiative as a cure for deteriorating infrastructure, a big chunk of the revenues would have gone to interchange enhancements and road extensions.

Though a tax increase this big would have been a tough sell under any circumstances, voters clearly considered this one to be a particularly bad investment.

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In Dallas, You Can Get a “Sustainability” Grant to Widen a Road

Image: North Central Texas Council of Governments

Want to widen a road in the Dallas region? You can get “Sustainable Development Funds.” Want to extend a transit line? No such luck. Image: North Central Texas Council of Governments

Some folks on Twitter have been having a laugh about these PowerPoint slides from the North Central Texas Council of Governments.

But it’s more sad than funny. The slides outline what kinds of projects are eligible for the Dallas region’s Sustainable Development Funds, according to local planner Patrick Kennedy. More than $43 million was awarded for projects meeting these criteria between 2009 and 2010, the last time the funds were apparently awarded. (They were also awarded in 2001 and 2006.)

“The program is designed to encourage planning and foster growth and development in and around historic downtowns and Main Streets, infill areas, and along passenger rail lines and at stations,” COG explains on its website.

Notice how the top eligible item is “expanding roadway capacity.” And that road reconstruction — maintenance projects — is ineligible.

Even though we’ve singled out Dallas here, lots of agencies give out federal “Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Funds” for road widenings. Adding turn lanes is a federally eligible use. Point being, the federal government and many regional governments — Dallas among them — still accept the idea that widening roads will reduce congestion and thus improve air quality, despite all the evidence that it does the opposite.

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Will Missouri Voters Go Along With the Highway Lobby’s Money Grab?

Next week, Missouri voters will decide on Amendment 7 — a three-quarter-cent sales tax hike to pay for transportation projects that would be the largest tax increase in the state’s history. Construction industry groups have poured millions into convincing Missourians to pay $5.4 billion over the next 10 years. Will they bite?

A coalition of pro-transit forces is urging them not to. Thomas Shrout, a long-time St. Louis transit advocate, is heading the opposition, a group called Missourians for Better Transportation Solutions. Shrout says the tax fails on a number of levels.

For one, 85 percent of the money would be spent on roads. Only 7 percent would go to transit and a small portion would go toward local governments.

“It’s just out of proportion,” said Shrout.

Highway capacity in slow-growing Missouri is already abundant. Compared to other American cities, Kansas City and St. Louis rank near the top in highway miles per capita. Driving has been declining nationwide and Missouri’s population grew less than 1 percent over the last 13 years.

So why the push to raise taxes to build new roads? Follow the money. “Just about every major [engineering and construction] firm in the country has given to the Yes campaign,” Shrout told Streetsblog.

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