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Posts from the Highway Expansion Category

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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: 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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Caption Contest: TxDOT’s Shiny Happy People Sucking in Highway Exhaust

Caption this rendering! Source: TxDOT

Your caption here. Source: TxDOT

This rendering of State Highway 45 Southwest in Austin — one of 12 highway boondoggles singled out by U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group this year — inspired some mockery on Twitter:

And that got us thinking… Caption contest! Give us your entry in the comments and we’ll choose a winner.

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Highway Boondoggles: Texas State Highway 45 Southwest

The water pollution control plans for SH 45 allow for oil, grease, and other pollutants resulting from construction and use of the highway to enter the area’s surface water and groundwater. Image: TxDOT

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 focus on a road project that risks contaminating the water supply in and around Austin, Texas. 

Building a controversial brand new, four-mile, four-lane toll road would increase traffic on one of the most congested roads in Austin, and increase water pollution in an environmentally sensitive area critical for recharging an aquifer providing drinking water to 2 million Texans.

The Texas Department of Transportation’s efforts to connect Austin’s MoPac Expressway to I-35 along Bear Creek date back to the 1980s. For 20 years, the connection from I-35 to MoPac, formally called Loop 1 and nicknamed after the old Missouri-Pacific railway that ran where the road now does, has not been a high enough priority to attract funding.

Now, efforts are coming together to build the first leg of that road, from MoPac to Farm-to-Market Route (FM) 1626, a state-maintained road running roughly northwest from Hays to the Ashbrook neighborhood of Austin. The currently proposed extension would intersect with FM 1626 just south of Big Valley Road, four miles from where FM 1626 meets I-35. TxDOT has separated the other segments of the connector road into distinct projects; each piece must be evaluated on its own merits, as well as its connection to the larger concept.

Most of the money for the connection of MoPac to FM 1626 will come from the Texas Department of Transportation, which is providing $29 million in grant funding, and another $60 million in bond authorizations, which will be repaid by projected toll revenue. An additional $5 million will come from Hays County, and $15 million more from Travis County.

The money will be spent on a project that TxDOT admits would draw new traffic to MoPac, which is already being expanded in hopes of relieving existing congestion. Continuing the road across FM 1626 and connecting directly to I-35 would be the next step, drawing even more traffic through the two busy roads.

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Highway Boondoggles: Widening I-95 Across Connecticut

Photo: Doug Kerr

Bucking the state’s longstanding recommendations, Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy says widening I-95 will fix congestion. Photo: Doug Kerr/Flickr via U.S. PIRG

Last year Congress passed a multi-year transportation bill. Like previous bills, it gives tens of billions of dollars to states every year to spend with almost no strings attached. How much of this federal funding will state DOTs devote to expensive, traffic-inducing highway projects that further entrench car dependence and sprawl?

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 egregious examples of state DOTs that can’t shake the road expansion habit. Streetsblog will be serializing the case studies in the report, starting with this excerpt about Connecticut, which just lost GE to Boston

A long-dormant idea for a multi-billion-dollar expansion of I-95 is being promoted by the state’s governor as a fix for congestion, despite official studies dating back to 2002 recommending against any expansion of the highway, saying it would make congestion worse, extend traffic delays, and increase pollution.

Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy has proposed a 30-year, $100 billion plan to invest in transportation across the state. More than 10 percent of that spending, $11.2 billion, is dedicated to reversing decades of Connecticut’s planning priorities by adding an additional lane to I-95 across the entire state — 110 miles from the New York state line to the Rhode Island border.

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Lobbyist Holds Up Spectacular Example of the Futility of Widening Highways

Crossposted from City Observatory

Here’s a highway success story, as told by the folks who build highways.

Several years ago, the Katy Freeway in Houston was a major traffic bottleneck. It was so bad that in 2004 the American Highway Users Alliance (AHUA) called one of its interchanges the second worst bottleneck in the nation wasting 25 million hours a year of commuter time. (The Katy Freeway, Interstate 10, connects downtown Houston to the city’s growing Eastern suburbs almost 30 miles to the east).

Obviously, when a highway is too congested, you need to add capacity: make it wider! Add more lanes! So the state of Texas pumped more than $2.8 billion into widening the Katy; by the end, it had 23 lanes, good enough for widest freeway in the world.

It was a triumph of traffic engineering. In a report entitled Unclogging America’s Arteries, released last month on the eve of congressional action to pump more money into the nearly bankrupt Highway Trust Fund, the AHUA highlighted the Katy widening as one of three major “success stories,” noting that the widening “addressed” the problem and, “as a result, [it was] not included in the rankings” of the nation’s worst traffic chokepoints.

There’s just one problem: congestion on the Katy has actually gotten worse since its expansion.

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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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