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Posts from the Highway Expansion Category

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It’s Time to Stop Pretending That Roads Pay for Themselves

If nothing else, the current round of federal transportation legislating should end the myth that highways are a uniquely self-sufficient form of infrastructure paid for by “user fees,” a.k.a. gas taxes and tolls.

Highways have been massively subsidized for many years, but now it’s going to be harder to ignore. Graph: U.S. PIRG

With all the general tax revenue that goes toward roads in America, car infrastructure has benefited from hefty subsidies for many years. But at the federal level, the road gang could always argue that the gas tax paid for the Highway Trust Fund. Not anymore.

The gas tax has stagnated at the same rate since 1993, and the Highway Trust Fund has been bailed out so many times over the last decade, it’s hard to keep count. A long-term transportation bill was supposed to fix that. Instead, the six-year bill on its way to passage right now in Washington may finally bury the idea that American highways are wholly paid for by the gas tax.

Despite gas prices plummeting to barely more than $2 a gallon, and despite pressure from interest groups on both the right and left, Congress has never seriously considered raising the gas tax to cover the cost of the federal transportation program. That means roads are in line for way more subsidies.

It’s unclear exactly how much subsidy the final bill will contain, since the House and Senate bills have yet to be reconciled. But it looks like about $85 billion will be needed to fill the gap over six years. Part of that figures to come from raiding the Federal Reserve and part from a gimmicky one-shot tax on “repatriated” overseas corporate profits. Either way, we’re not talking about “user fees.”

In the House bill, the combined subsidy would account for a quarter of the $322 billion in transportation spending over six years. The subsidy will only get larger in future bills as the purchasing power of the gas tax continues to erode, unless Congress can overcome its aversion to asking drivers to pay for roads.

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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 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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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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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: ## 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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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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Ohio Cities to State DOT: No More New Roads, Just Fix What We Have

A potholed street in Boardman, Ohio, a middle-class suburb of Youngstown. The Youngstown area has a Facebook group with 800 members devoted to mocking these potholes. Photo: Potholes of Youngstown and Surrounding Areas

A potholed street in Boardman, Ohio, a middle-class suburb of Youngstown. The Youngstown area has a Facebook group with almost 800 members devoted to mocking these potholes. Photo: Potholes of Youngstown and Surrounding Areas

Given that the federal Highway Trust Fund is broke and the Interstate Highway System is more or less complete, maybe — just maybe! — it doesn’t make sense to keep expanding highways. And if there’s one place in the country where it’s especially urgent to stop building more highways, it’s northeast Ohio.

The combined metro areas of Akron, Cleveland, and Youngstown are shrinking at an alarming rate. Unlike some Rust Belt regions, it’s not just their core cities hemorrhaging population: The whole region has shrunk 7 percent since the 1970s. The three cities have lost more population combined since the 1950s than they have now.

That kind of decline exerts intense fiscal pressures. Central cities and even many suburbs in these regions can’t afford to maintain their roads. Cleveland recently borrowed $100 million, with about a quarter of that for road repairs. Even though that will roughly double the annual road repair budget, it’s still just a small fraction of what’s needed to catch up on the city’s $300 million resurfacing backlog.

State transportation policy has not responded to these mounting pressures. The Ohio Department of Transportation has continued to add highways as if the region were booming. Since the 1990s alone, northeast Ohio has added more than 300 highway lane-miles. Rather than stimulate growth, it has mostly served to facilitate sprawl and hollow out city centers. Cleveland ranked dead last among 96 metro areas in a recent Brookings study on growth in job access.

Local leaders are finally speaking up, with Akron and Cleveland making it clear they want the state to start emphasizing maintenance. Grace Gallucci, head of Cleveland’s metropolitan planning organization, NOACA, appealed to ODOT in September to use part of its “major projects” funding on a package of road repairs in the Cleveland region. The state refused.

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How the Lure of Spending Keeps Dumb Highway Projects Alive

Decades ago, Ohio officials drew a line on a map — the Eastern Corridor, a highway for commuters living in Cincinnati’s eastern suburbs. No matter how much time has passed and how little sense it makes to build that highway today, that line can still seem like destiny.

An image used by the village of Newton to oppose the Ohio Department of Transportation's $1.4 billion Eastern Corridor highway plan. Image: Village of Newton

This is the message from the village of Newtown about the Ohio Department of Transportation’s $1.4 billion Eastern Corridor highway plan. Image: Village of Newtown

The Eastern Corridor began as a 1960s vision for a highway connecting bedroom communities in mostly rural Clermont County to downtown Cincinnati, roughly 17 miles away. There is not much appetite for it: As soon as Ohio DOT dusted off its plans and started laying the groundwork to build this $1.4 billion project in 2011, communities along the corridor revolted.

The project lives on anyway. Last week, it seemed like state legislators were poised to reject the highway, but the thought of turning down a big construction project — no matter how wasteful and unwanted — was too much for some lawmakers to bear. The Eastern Corridor remains a looming possibility, a case study in how highway projects can develop a nearly unstoppable political momentum.

The outcry against the Easter Corridor has been growing since the moment ODOT told the public what it wanted to build. Along almost every section of the planned road, residents, neighborhoods, and whole towns tried to stop the project.

The most fiercely opposed sections involve rerouting State Route 32 through Newtown and Mariemont — two small, relatively affluent inner-ring suburbs. The road would cut through the heart of tiny Newtown, where the leadership is adamantly opposed, saying it will destroy the town’s business center. In Mariemont, it would ruin a park referred to as the South 80.

The Eastern Corridor also calls for a poorly-conceived rail line, expected to cost as much as $600 million and draw as few as 3,000 daily riders. The region’s rail advocates oppose it, calling it a waste of money.

Even farther away suburbs are not exactly thrilled about the highway. Andersen Township Trustee Russell Jackson told the Cincinnati Enquirer that “nobody in the local communities really sees this incredible benefit to building this thing.”

There are pockets of support for the project, including rural Clermont County, but overall, public opinion against the Eastern Corridor appears to be strong enough to sink it. Jason Williams at the Enquirer wondered last week if it was “on life support.”

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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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