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Louisiana Raids Its Maintenance Fund to Pay for Road Expansions

This year, Louisiana will raid $21.6 million from its road maintenance fund to pay for road projects, including some expansions, that have been on the books since 1989. The state will have to keep stealing from the fund for the next 27 years to pay for them.

Two projects, including the construction of a new four-lane highway connecting I-12 to Bush, Louisiana, continue to cost the state dearly, 26 years after they were approved. Image: ##http://wwwapps.dotd.la.gov/administration/public_info/projects/home.aspx?key=88##Louisiana DOTD##

Two projects, including the construction of a new four-lane highway connecting I-12 to Bush, Louisiana, continue to cost the state dearly, 26 years after they were approved. Image: Louisiana DOTD

Voters approved a package of 16 road and bridge projects under a pay-as-you-go model 26 years ago. Two of the projects, both in the New Orleans area, are still underway, according to a report by The Advocate:

Meanwhile, leaders have long since concluded that financing the improvements through a special, 4-cents-per-gallon tax was not enough.

The original price tag for the projects was $1.4 billion. The latest estimate is $5.2 billion.

“It is unbelievable,” said state Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, who is often involved in Baton Rouge-area highway projects.

State officials say construction will last up to 10 years, and taxpayers will be shelling out for these roads long after building has ended. Since the 4-cents-a-gallon tax fund the state is authorized to use for these projects is insufficient, the state is digging into a fund that’s supposed to cover ordinary road maintenance in the region. The raids will recur annually for the next 27 years, starting at $21.6 million this year and ending at an estimated $87.6 million in 2044.

“It was ill-conceived,” Republican Sen. Dale Erdey, a veteran member of the Senate Transportation Committee, told The Advocate. “They told Joe Public that it would be a pay-as-you-go-type situation, and of course, that was totally off base.”

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HUD Tells Cleveland: Don’t Let Opportunity Corridor Go “Horribly Wrong”

It was a sad day in Washington, DC, last year when Harriet Tregoning left the DC Office of Planning. But it’s becoming clear that she’s a great addition at HUD.

In her capacity as the agency’s principal deputy assistant secretary for community development, Tregoning issued a stern warning to the city of Cleveland and Ohio DOT last week not to mess up the road project known as the “Opportunity Corridor.” Clearly she fears they will do just that.

“You could either get it gloriously right or horribly wrong,” Tregoning said during a visit to Cleveland, according to the Plain Dealer.

In its quest to cut a faster path for drivers from the freeway to University Circle, a major employment center, Ohio DOT plans to spend more than $100 million a mile and destroy 76 homes to build a five-lane, 35-mph road. If you want to build a project like that in 2015, it clearly helps to cloak it under the guise of “opportunity.”

But Tregoning recognizes the project for what it is: suburban-style road-building in an already-depressed area of a city that desperately needs a different kind of growth. Talking to the City Club, a civic engagement organization, she urged local leaders to see the corridor as an opportunity for development and employment, not just a road for commuters to get to work fast. And that would require changes to the road design itself.

“I love my friends at the state DOTs, but they often overbuild things,” she said. “They build for a traffic projection that is very unlikely to happen.” Indeed, traffic in Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County rose just 0.02 percent a year between 2000 and 2013. There’s no justification for building such a wide and fast road inside the city limits where walkable development is called for.

Tregoning warned that building a five-lane, high-speed road through the city’s most depressed neighborhoods flies in the face of a regional plan, funded by HUD through its Partnership for Sustainable Communities with U.S. DOT and the EPA. The plan, called Vibrant NEO, seeks to make Northeast Ohio greener and more economically competitive by reversing the cycle of sprawl and investing in established communities.

Construction is already underway on the Opportunity Corridor, and ODOT says it’s too late to make any changes. The project is scheduled for completion in 2019. Something drastic will have to change for Cleveland to heed Tregoning’s words and get it “gloriously right” after all. Otherwise, she said, it would be “as if Vibrant NEO never existed.”

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Scott Walker’s Own Party Rejects His Milwaukee Highway Boondoggle

Among other excellent decisions, the Joint Finance Committee decided to kill funding for I-94 expansion between the Zoo and Marquette Interchanges. Photo: ##http://wuwm.com/post/zoo-interchange-reconstruction-triggers-more-closures-some-openings##WISDOT via WUWM##

Among other excellent decisions, the Joint Finance Committee wants to kill funding for the I-94 expansion between the Zoo and Marquette Interchanges. Photo: WISDOT via WUWM

Governor Scott Walker might be too busy campaigning for president to care, but the Wisconsin legislature handed him a rebuke last week, rejecting his plans for debt-fueled highway expansion.

The Republican-controlled legislature’s Joint Finance Committee trimmed about 35 percent off Walker’s proposed $1.3 billion in borrowing for highways. If approved by the Assembly and Senate — a big if — the committee’s budget proposal could spell the end for Walker’s plans to widen a section of I-94 in Milwaukee.

The finance committee also ordered an audit of the state DOT’s spending. Advocates from WISPIRG, Sierra Club, and 1000 Friends of Wisconsin want state officials to hold off on beginning construction on any new highway expansion projects until the audit is completed.

“We just can’t afford to keep repeating the mistakes that got us into this year’s budget mess,” said WISPIRG Director Peter Skopec in a statement. “For years, we’ve wasted billions of dollars on highway expansions based on inflated traffic forecasts, and our existing infrastructure has been left to crumble as a result. This audit brings unprecedented and much-needed scrutiny to WisDOT’s highway expansion plans and the methods used to justify billion-dollar projects.”

The committee picked one highway project to axe: the $850 million expansion of I-94 between the Zoo and Marquette Interchanges, where traffic has actually been declining. The state had previously decided in February to scrap plans to double-deck that segment, opting for a different expansion method.

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The Pendulum Swings Away From Highways on the Dallas City Council

Half of the Dallas City Council now opposes the construction of a six-lane, limited-access highway along the Trinity River. Image: Army Corps of Engineers via Dallas Morning News

A runoff election Saturday has solidified who’s in and who’s out of the Dallas City Council. At stake were the future of two highway projects: the construction of the Trinity Toll Road and the removal of I-345 to make way for walkable development. Highway opponents gained ground, though not enough for a majority.

Before the election, four of 14 votes on the City Council consistently opposed the construction of the Trinity and supported removing I-345. Then in the May election, two candidates endorsed by A New Dallas, a PAC supporting the I-345 teardown, picked up seats. With the 35-vote victory victory on Saturday of Adam McGough, it appears that the council is now split on both highway issues.

McGough is the former chief of staff to Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, the Trinity Toll Road’s chief booster. But late in the campaign he expressed opposition to Alternative 3C, the design that involves building a six-lane high-speed road alongside the Trinity River. McGough explicitly called for 3C to be rejected and said he supports a smaller four-lane road instead.

McGough also supports the effort to replace I-345 with surface streets. His runoff win puts him in a bloc along with Mark Clayton and Carolyn King Arnold, the newly elected council members, and the four sitting highway opponents.

With the City Council split 7-7, the pro-walkability camp remains one vote shy of a decisive majority. But in Dallas’s weak-mayor system, it is significantly stronger than before the election. As the Dallas Morning News reports, “the toll road will always be a bumpy ride for the mayor” and “the lopsided votes of the past in favor of the Trinity project now become closer.”

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Ohio DOT Cedes Ground in Its Sneaky Highway Expansion Campaign

The relocation of State Route 32 would have set the stage for an interstate to the sea. Image: ##http://www.urbancincy.com/2011/01/809m-identified-for-long-planned-i-74-extension-through-hamilton-county/##Urban Cincy##

The relocation of State Route 32 would have set the stage for sprawling development in Cincinnati’s eastern suburbs. Image: Urban Cincy

Opponents of a $1.4 billion highway expansion project outside Cincinnati have won some important concessions from Ohio DOT, but the agency’s stealth campaign to build an “interstate to the sea” isn’t over yet.

Last week, ODOT announced that it will no longer pursue the relocation of State Route 32 through communities on the eastern edge of Cincinnati. “We’re not going to spend any more time or money on that current aspect of the project,” ODOT spokesman Brian Cunningham said at a meeting last Thursday.

But ODOT is still looking to widen parts of SR 32, add turn lanes, and install new ramps — meaning it hasn’t abandoned the decades-old plan to create a highway from Cincinnati all the way to the South Carolina coast.

“What they did is that they broke down the upgrading of SR 32 to interstate specs into several small projects that seem innocuous on their own,” said Jake Mecklenborg of UrbanCincy. “While cancellation of the highway inside the I-275 loop might prevent 1990s-type suburban development of rural Clermont County, the decades-old effort to connect I-74 in Cincinnati with I-74 in North Carolina is still very much alive.”

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Putting TIGER Spending in Perspective

Federal spending on TIGER compared to the total cost of various U.S. highway projects. Image: Streetsblog

Federal spending on TIGER compared to the total cost of various U.S. highway projects. Image: Streetsblog

The House’s current transportation spending bill calls for reducing the share of federal spending that goes to TIGER, a grant program for sustainable transportation projects in cities, from $500 to $100 million. The budget, meanwhile, holds highway funding steady.

Indianapolis' cultural trail is one of about 200 projects that have been funded through TIGER over its four-plus year history. Image: Visit Indy

Indianapolis’s cultural trail is one of about 200 projects that have been funded through TIGER over its four-plus year history. Image: Visit Indy

TIGER is an enormously popular program. In its second year, it received close to 1,000 applications totaling $19 billion from communities in every U.S. state. At that time, there was just $600 million in funding available. Last year it was reduced to $500 million.

Despite its overwhelming popularity, TIGER is constantly in jeopardy. Yet transportation project austerity does not seem to apply to highways. To illustrate, we thought it’d be interesting to compare the cost of a few highway projects to total TIGER funding. Keep in mind that TIGER funds about 50 innovative projects annually, from the Indianapolis Cultural Trail to Cleveland’s University Circle Rapid Station. The result is in the graph above.

Now, a little about those highway projects:

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Is the Lord For or Against a Texas County Road Bond? Opinions Mixed

Things are really getting heated in Montgomery County, Texas, just outside Houston, over a proposal to issue $350 million in bonds to maintain and expand roads. Like fire-and-brimstone heated.

Earlier this week, at a county commissioners meeting, volunteer Mary Hammer Menzel referred to road bond opponents as “tools of satan” in her opening prayer, reports the Montgomery County Courier.

Menzel apparently has strong opinions about which side of the debate God is on. At the previous meeting, she also led the opening prayer, saying, “Father, I want to lift up this road bond to you and just ask you to help the people realize this county has got to have ways to get around,” according to the Montgomery County Police Reporter. Menzel appears in a television ad supporting the road bond, saying, “I am for the road bond and the Lord is too.”

Laura Fillault, a road bond opponent, did not take kindly to this week’s prayer. “I’m not a tool of satan,” she said. “I didn’t appreciate that part of the prayer… It’s a road bond it’s not a satanic ritual.”

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Cincinnati’s Highway Revolt on the Verge of Victory

Ohio State Rep. Tom Brinkman, a Republican who believes in lower taxes, is taking a principled stance against a wasteful highway project. Photo: Wikipedia

Ohio State Rep. Tom Brinkman, a Republican who believes in lower taxes, is taking a principled stance against a wasteful highway project. Photo: Wikipedia

Could the end be near for the $1.4 billion Eastern Corridor highway project proposed for eastern Cincinnati? Language added to Ohio’s transportation budget, which is being debated right now, would specifically “prohibit [Ohio DOT] from funding the Eastern Corridor Project in Hamilton County.”

The amendment was introduced by Republican state lawmaker Tom Brinkman, who represents an eastern portion of Cincinnati. Brinkman told the Cincinnati Enquirer, “I am representing constituents who say, ‘We don’t want to tear down our communities.'” The boondoggle highway project is opposed by residents in Newton, Mariemont, Madisonville, and other towns east of Cincinnati.

The highway does have its defenders in the legislature. At a House Finance Committee meeting Monday, Democrat Denise Driehaus, who represents Cincinnati, signaled her concerns about Brinkman’s amendment.

“It’s been going on for about a decade and so there has been significant investment at both the state and local level,” she said. “It seems to me this sets a precedent that the legislature prohibits ODOT from spending on a local project that has been vetted locally.”

Ryan Smith, a Republican from southeastern Ohio, countered: “This project has gone on for a decade but I think everyone can agree that heading down the wrong path and continuing down the wrong path may be problematic.” As to whether it would represent some kind of dangerous precedent for elected leaders to direct state transportation officials not to fund specific projects, he said, “This is the first time I can remember somebody asking not to be funded on a project.” (For what it’s worth, Governor Kasich added legislation to a previous budget that forbid state money from being spent on the Cincinnati Streetcar.)

You can watch the exchange between Driehaus and Smith here at about the 8:30 mark.

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Americans Are Driving Less, But Road Expansion Is Accelerating

Notice how the new lane miles and miles driven depart in the upper right hand corner of this chart, via FHWA.

Starting around 2005, driving leveled off, but transportation agencies continued to expand roads. Click to enlarge. Chart: FHWA

Americans drive fewer miles today than in 2005, but since that time the nation has built 317,000 lane-miles of new roads — or about 40,000 miles per year. Maybe that helps explain why America’s infrastructure is falling apart.

The new data on road construction comes from the Federal Highway Administration and reached our attention via Tony Dutzik at the Frontier Group, which studies trends in driving. In 2005, Americans drove just above a combined 3 trillion miles. Almost a decade later, in 2013, the last year for which data was available, they were driving about 45 billion less annually — so total driving behavior had declined slightly. Meanwhile, road construction continued as if demand was never higher.

Between 2005 and 2013, states and the federal government poured about $27 billion a year into road expansion. According to FHWA data, road expansion was spread across highways and surface streets fairly uniformly.

That’s actually a faster pace than in previous decades, Dutzik points out. For the whole of the 1990s — when gas was cheap and sprawl development was booming — the country added, on average, about 17,000 lane-miles a year, less than half the current rate.

This is further evidence that America’s “infrastructure crisis” is due in large part to spending choices that favor new construction over maintenance.

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Wisconsin Dumps One Urban Highway Boondoggle in Favor of Another

Wisconsin Department of Transportation rendering of their proposed, but now rejected, plan for a double decker freeway in Milwaukee.

Instead of spending $1 billion to create this double-decker section of I-94 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin DOT will spend $850 million to widen the highway. Rendering: WisDOT via Milwaukee Business Journal

One of the nation’s most poorly conceived highway proposals will become slightly less ridiculous. Transportation officials in Wisconsin recently announced they will no longer consider double-decking a portion of Interstate 94 in Milwaukee. The billion-dollar project would have raised the highway to building height in the Story Hill neighborhood.

Wisconsin DOT hasn’t seen the light, however. The state is still marching ahead with a tremendously expensive I-94 expansion project. Instead of spending $1 billion to double-deck the highway, WisDOT has settled on spending $850 million to repair the road and add a lane in each direction.

For comparison, the project will still cost about three times what Governor Scott Walker cut from state support for the University of Wisconsin in his recent budget. The road expansion is designed to save commuters just four minutes in each direction — assuming the state’s traffic assumptions are correct.

But there is very good reason to believe they are not. State officials are using old traffic data to justify the enormous expense. Traffic counts on the corridor actually declined between 2009 and 2012, the latest years for which data was available, according to an analysis by the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group.

The data Wisconsin DOT cites to justify the project only extends through 2010. The agency says that’s because a later construction project affected traffic levels on the road. But Metro Milwaukee’s population has barely increased in a decade, and statewide, driving has been flat since 1999, so it’s not at all clear why the state would be expecting such an increase.

“Rather than fixing it first and prioritizing the maintenance of our existing roads and bridges, the DOT wants to widen a highway where traffic counts have declined by 8 percent over the past 12 years,” said WISPIRG Director Peter Skopec in a press release.