Highway Boondoggles: I-49 Inner City Connection in Shreveport, Louisiana
In their fourth Highway Boondoggles report, U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group profile wasteful highway projects that state DOTs are building across the country. Today’s boondoggle is a highway that would slice through the heart of a neighborhood in Shreveport. The cost is being justified with questionable economic growth projections, and the project will divert money away from needed repairs to existing roads and bridges.
Louisiana officials are making plans to build an expensive highway that will harm a community, reminiscent of highway projects that devastated urban areas in the middle of the 20th century. The plan is to spend $547 million to $640 million building a new 3.5-mile cut-through section of Interstate 49 that will divide the northern section of Shreveport. A loop interstate already exists around Shreveport and is the “no build option.”
The new section of highway would cut through the middle of the neighborhood of Allendale. All of the cut-through routes proposed so far would require demolishing at least one church and at least 50 homes. Unsurprisingly, many residents have expressed outrage over the plan, for which state officials were drafting an environmental impact statement as of November 2017.
The proposed highway could have costs beyond the damage to a community. Research has shown that road-centric development tends to be less valuable from a tax-base standpoint than the older, denser development that gets replaced. And a number of studies have found that building highways does not generate new economic growth – it merely redistributes economic activity from city centers to new-build suburbs or from one town to another. In fact, some studies on sprawl have found evidence of enormous harm to the economy – a 2015 study by the Victoria Transport Policy Institute estimated that urban sprawl costs the U.S. economy $1 trillion each year as a result of costs including greater spending on infrastructure, public service delivery, and transportation.
Residents of Allendale have proposed an alternative project: Upgrading Route 71, which is already used by drivers to connect to I-49, into a multiuse “business boulevard.” According to the community group #AllendaleStrong, such a project would cost just a fraction of the cost of the I-49 cut-through, while strengthening existing communities and bolstering local businesses.
Meanwhile, funding is needed for other important transportation projects in both Shreveport and around the state, including:
- Repairing aging roads and bridges. More than 60 percent of Louisiana roads are in poor or mediocre condition. And Louisiana ranks second in the country in structurally deficient bridges, based on square footage of bridge deck.
- Creating a smarter transportation network. In 2016, Shreveport applied for grant funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge. Among the improvements envisioned for the city are new electric vehicle charging stations, a new “electric taxi circulator station” that would be a hub for electric, shared transportation, and new systems to make the bus system more efficient and more responsive to riders’ needs.
Not only would the I-49 project likely fail to achieve its economic promises, it would also add to Louisiana’s already-growing highway debt. As of the end of 2015, Louisiana had $3.4 billion in highway debt, nearly 11 times more than at the end of 2000, not adjusted for inflation. And in 2014, Louisiana spent $310 million on highway debt service, six times more than in 2000. Further debt could complicate Louisiana’s already-difficult budget situation, as the state is facing the prospect of credit rating downgrades in the face of a nearly $1 billion budget shortfall in the 2019 fiscal year.