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Posts from the Highway Expansion Category


The High Price of Cheap Gas

At least on the surface, the big declines in gas prices we’ve seen over the past year seem like an unalloyed good. We save money at the pump, and we have more to spend on other things, But the cheap gas has serious hidden costs—more pollution, more energy consumption, more crashes and greater traffic congestion. There’s an important lesson here, if we pay attention.

US macroeconomic forecasters are usually very upbeat about any decline in gasoline prices.

Because the US is a big importer of petroleum, a decline in oil prices benefits the US economy. Lower oil prices reduce the nation’s balance of trade deficit, and effectively put more income into consumer’s pockets, which helps stimulate the domestic economy. In theory, declining gas prices should have the same stimulative effect as a tax cut. Whether that’s true in practice depends on how consumers respond to changing gas prices. Some of the positive effect of the decline has been muted by consumer disbelief that price reductions are permanent. Earlier this year, surveys by VISA showed that 70% of consumers were still wary that prices could rise.

Low gas prices: worse news than you think. Credit: Minale Tattersfield, Flickr

Low gas prices: worse news than you think. Credit: Minale Tattersfield, Flickr

But cheaper gas has does free up consumer budgets to spend more in other industries. Using data on credit card and debit card purchases of households, and looking at variations in spending among households that spent a little and a lot of their income on gasoline, and observing how spending patterns changed as gas prices fluctuate led the JP Morgan Chase Institute to predict that the bulk of savings from lower gas prices go to restaurant meals, groceries and entertainment.

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Community Pushing Back Against Plan to Widen Interstate Through Asheville

Will the state of North Carolina and the Federal Highway Administration insist on widening an interstate highway through west Asheville to eight lanes? Right now, it looks like there’s a very good chance of that — and that’s what frightens a lot of locals.

Eight lanes through urban neighborhoods in a city of 85,000? Many residents say that's overkill. Image: NCDOT via Asheville City Source

Eight lanes through urban neighborhoods in a city of 85,000? Many residents say that’s overkill. Image: NCDOT via Asheville City Source

Highway builders want to complete the “missing link” of Interstate 26 running from Tennessee to Charleston. That missing link is actually already an interstate: I-240, built right though some of Asheville’s urban neighborhoods during the urban renewal era. The highway was a major dividing line between some of the black neighborhoods in west Asheville and some more affluent white neighborhoods.

Problem is, FHWA refuses to just rename it I-26 because the highway doesn’t meet some of the modern interstate standards. The DOT is exploring its options for a $600 million widening and “upgrade.”

The state recently released its draft environmental impact statement. The document seems to favor a design that would widen the highway from four lanes to eight — a plan many local residents say is unnecessary and potentially damaging. Last year, the U.S. Public Interest Research group named the project one of its top “highway boondoggles.”

“Is an eight-lane freeway through the heart of a city of 85,000 really justified,” says Don Kostelec, a local advocate and independent planner who is skeptical of the project.

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Arkansas Wants to Widen Highway, Eliminate Streetcar for “Safety”

This is how highway planners envision the expanded road would look during morning rush hour in 40 years. Image: AHDT via Arkansas Times

This is how highway planners envision the expanded road will look in 2055 during morning rush hour. Image: AHDT via Arkansas Times

Where to even begin with this?

Officials in Arkansas are pushing a plan to widen a partly elevated highway through the center of Little Rock from six lanes to 10 lanes at a cost of $600 million. It’s bad enough that the state wants to ram an elevated highway through downtown at a time when many cities are looking to tear them down, but it gets worse.

To widen I-30, the state would require Little Rock to rip up part of an existing streetcar line.

To top it all off, highway planners have said the highway project is necessary for — ahem — “safety.”

What the heck is going on here?

Arkansas Department of Highways and Transportation just completed a year-long environmental study for the project they call 30 Crossing. The agency’s “preferred alternative” is the 10-lane highway widening, which it believes is the best way to “relieve congestion, improve roadway safety” and address structural deficiencies in the road.

Tim McKuin, a local resident who writes the blog Move Arkansas, says the impetus for the project was the I-30 Arkansas River Bridge, which needed to be replaced. In addition, state highway builders are flush with cash after Arkansas passed a half-cent sales tax measure for increased highway spending in 2012.

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Dallas Council Member: Texas Poised to “Compound Errors of the Past”

The entire Texas highway machine — suburban real estate moguls, the construction industry, the governor, and the legislature — is pushing voters to approve Prop 7, a constitutional amendment that would mandate spending $2.5 billion in state sales tax revenue on un-tolled roads. The highway interests are telling Texas voters in unison that this measure, if approved in November, will fix congestion and not cost them any extra money — claims that don’t stand up to the slightest scrutiny.

Philip Kingston represents downtown Dallas on City Council. Photo: City of Dallas

Philip Kingston represents downtown Dallas on the City Council. Photo: City of Dallas

But there hasn’t been much pushback against the story that Prop 7 backers are selling. The Dallas Morning News’ Brandon Formby reported that the only voice of political opposition is Dallas City Council Member Philip Kingston, who represents downtown.

I spoke with Kingston this week about why he thinks Prop 7 is going to be terrible for the state. Here’s our Q&A, edited for length and clarity.

I read in the Dallas Morning News that you — and only you — have some concerns about Prop 7.

Yeah, the Dallas Morning News said I’m the only person in Texas opposed to it.

It is incredibly bad policy. It got worse recently. The governor issued a directive saying the money from Prop 7 is to be directed at the worst areas of highway congestion in the state. We already know what those are: Those are massive double-decked highway projects inside urban areas.

We’re going to compound the errors of the past with all kinds of new money.

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Will Texas Voters Enshrine Failed Transpo Policy in the State’s Constitution?

When Texas voters go to the polls this November they will decide an issue of enormous consequence to the future of the state.

Adding more lanes isn’t going to fix Texas’s transportation problems. Photo: TxDOT via Houston Matters

A proposed amendment to the state constitution — on the ballot as Proposition 7 — would shift about $2.5 billion in sales tax revenues to highway spending each year. All the money must be spent on highways that will be further subsidized by the absence of tolls, since the amendment expressly forbids spending on transit or even tolled lanes. There is no substantial political opposition to Prop 7, which has been sold to voters as a solution to congestion.

Last year, Texas voters decided to raid the state’s rainy day fund to pay for roads. If that vote is any indication, Prop 7 will be approved by a wide margin. The irony is that shoveling more subsidies toward free roads will probably just make traffic in Texas worse.

The state of Texas already spends about $12 billion a year on transportation, with roughly 95 percent of that flowing to highways. Prop 7 is being sold as a painless way to increase transportation budgets, but Jay Crossley of advocacy group Houston Tomorrow says it’s not the free lunch that backers make it out to be.

“This isn’t new money,” said Crossley. “It simply requires that a certain amount of taxes go to this. So it likely will mean tax increases in the future or massive cuts to other things like schools.”

Texas seems incapable of learning from its highway-building history. The state recently poured $2.8 billion into widening the Katy Freeway to 23 lanes, but rather than speeding up commutes, the bigger highway spurred an onslaught of low-density development on the edges of the Houston region. After spending all that money on the freeway, outbound travel times increased 51 percent during the p.m. rush, according to data from the Greater Houston Transportation and Emergency Management System.

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Do Environmental Reviews for Road Projects Help the Environment?

It’s been more than 40 years since the National Environmental Policy Act was enacted. In that time, America has built a lot of emissions-inducing, land-devouring highway infrastructure despite the environmental review process mandated by NEPA. It’s fair to ask: When it comes to transportation infrastructure, does environmental review make a difference for the environment?

The $1.1 billion expansion of SR 400 and I-285 in Atlanta was able to escape a larger environmental review process because of the finding it would have "no significant [environmental] impact." Image: GDOT

The $1.1 billion expansion of the SR 400/I-285 highway interchange in Georgia was able to escape a larger environmental review process. Image: GDOT

To comply with federal environmental law, transportation agencies like state DOTs must hold a number of public meetings and produce a planning document, typically filling several hundred pages, before building a highway expansion.

Sometimes agencies can evade the full process. That’s what happened with Georgia’s $1.1 billion expansion of the interchange where I-285 meets SR 400 north of Atlanta, because the state asserted that the enormous project would have “no significant impact.”

When it’s that easy for agencies to build huge highway expansions that will fuel for sprawl and pollution, the environmental review process feels broken. Is it? And if so, can it be fixed? I reached out to two attorneys from the Southern Environmental Law Center for some context. Here’s what they said.

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Here’s What a Billion-Dollar Interchange Expansion Looks Like
In case you were wondering what a $1.1 billion highway interchange looks like, feast your eyes on this rendering from the Georgia Department of Transportation.

In an effort to “ease congestion” on this confluence of highways north of the city, Georgia will spend three-and-a-half years widening about four miles of I-285 and about one mile of SR 400, reconfiguring the place where they merge, rebuilding flyover ramps, and widening access roads into this gargantuan tangle of roadways. The interchange carries about 461,000 vehicles a day.

Governor Nathan Deal called it a “crucial economic engine.” Curbed Atlanta called the project an “orchestrated traffic jam” that is likely to be congested again by the time it is finished.

The cost for this interchange, through the sprawling Atlanta suburb of Sandy Springs, is so large, Georgia officials couldn’t even come close to assembling the money through the usual public funding channels. Instead the state proceeded with private financing to fill the $610 million gap. But private financing is not cheap — the additional cost helps explain why the price tag has ticked up from initial estimates of $650 million to $1.056 billion over the last few years.

Under the revised financing plan, the state will still be paying for this project in 2027, at which point it will make a final balloon payment of $62 million, a figure that is equal to about 20 percent of Georgia DOT’s current annual capital budget, points out the Southern Environmental Law Center.

So this road expansion will constrain Georgia’s ability to invest in transit and other alternatives to driving long after it gets jammed with cars again (since more roadway space will generate more traffic).

According to GDOT, environmental studies found “no significant impact” for this project, which goes to show how meaningless those studies can be.

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Ghost Parcels Show How Urban Highways Squandered Valuable Land

Here’s a great illustration of how incredibly destructive and wasteful it is to run elevated highways through cities. New York City-based artist and planning consultant Neil Freeman, who grew up in Chicago, put together these haunting images of Cook County land parcel maps superimposed over aerials of expressway interchanges in the West Loop, River West, Bridgeport and Chinatown.

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The Jane Byrne Interchange in the West Loop, currently being expanded. Image: Neil Freeman

The visuals are a byproduct of a research project Freeman is doing on housing typologies. The base layer is from Bing satellite images, and the parcels are from the Cook County assessor’s office. “Love that Cook County still keeps track of the parcels under the expressways punched through Chicago,” Freeman tweeted.So why does the county still maintain records of property lines that haven’t had meaning since the Richard J. Daley era?

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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.

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Two Highway Lanes Won’t Fix Baton Rouge’s Traffic Problem

This is the state's prescription  for congestion in Baton Rouge. Image: Louisiana DOTD

Louisiana’s prescription for traffic congestion in Baton Rouge is to widen a highway and generate more traffic. Image: Louisiana DOTD

Everyone agrees there’s a traffic problem in Baton Rouge, but not everyone is sold on the state’s plan to address it.

The Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development’s solution, presented this week, is to add two lanes to Interstate 10 through the Southdowns neighborhood. The widening will cost $350 million and require the demolition of a number of homes and businesses. And that doesn’t account for widening the bridge over the Mississippi River that the highway feeds into, a project that the DOT is already murmuring about (because the I-10 widening “isn’t a cure-all”) and which would cost another $800 million.

At the moment, the only proposal on the table is two new highway lanes. What hasn’t been discussed, local advocates point out, is how to tackle the problem by reducing traffic on the highway altogether.

“They are not considering any other alternate means of transportation,” said Mark Martin, chair of Bike Baton Rouge.

Here are a few questions that no one at DOT has bothered to ask, at least not publicly…

Could a more connected grid of local streets reduce traffic congestion on the highway? Could improved transit service relieve the pressure on I-10? How about adding bike lanes on local streets — would that help shift some trips from driving? Won’t adding freeway lanes simply encourage more people to drive on the freeway during peak hours, pumping more traffic onto local streets as drivers enter and exit I-10, defeating the supposed purpose of the project?

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