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Posts from the "Highway Expansion" Category

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To Destabilize Detroit’s Fragile Renaissance, Go Ahead and Widen I-94

Several historic buildings, including Detroit's oldest recording studio, would be mowed down to widen I-94 for no reason. Photo: Mode Shift via U.S. PIRG and Frontier Group

Several historic buildings, including Detroit’s oldest recording studio, would be mowed down to widen I-94 for no reason. Photo: Mode Shift via U.S. PIRG and Frontier Group

A recent report by U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group, “Highway Boondoggles: Wasted Money and America’s Transportation Future,” examines 11 of the most wasteful, least justifiable road projects underway in America right now. Here’s the latest installment in our series profiling the various bad decisions that funnel so much money to infrastructure that does no good. 

Michigan highway planners want to spend $2.7 billion to widen Interstate 94 through the heart of Detroit, saying that the existing road needs not just resurfacing and better bridges, but also more space for traffic. State officials continue to push forward with the project despite Detroit’s rapid population loss and other woes, and despite the fact that traffic volume on the stretch being considered for expansion is no higher than it was in 2005. Expanding the highway might even make Detroit’s economic recovery more difficult by further separating two neighborhoods that have been leading the city’s nascent revitalization.

The proposal would widen a seven-mile segment of I-94 called the Edsel Ford Expressway, which runs in a trench through the center of the city between the Midtown and New Center neighborhoods. Those areas are important for the city’s revitalization because of their central location. Efforts there to boost arts and culture, retail and commercial space, and downtown living have been gaining steam in recent years.

In fact, better connecting the neighborhoods is one reason for a $140 million streetcar project that broke ground this July. Officials have already begun calling for expansion of that project, but funds are currently lacking.

The proposed expansion of the highway would have the opposite effect, widening the physical trench between the neighborhoods and removing 11 bridges across the freeway that would not be replaced. As a result, walking and biking in the area would become much less convenient, forcing people to travel as much as six blocks out of their way to reach destinations.

Transportation officials say many buildings would have to be removed to make room for the wider road. The project requires displacing or demolishing 12 commercial buildings, 14 single-family homes, two duplexes and two apartment buildings with 14 units between them, as well as three buildings either on or eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places, including the city’s oldest recording studio.

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Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct: King of the Highway Boondoggles

The Alaskan Way Viaduct, damaged decades ago, will be rebuilt as a double-decker highway, even though a transit-heavy alternative would have been at least as effective at reducing congestion. Photo: Rootology/##http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alaskan_Way_Viaduct#mediaviewer/File:The_Alaskan_Way_Viaduct.jpg##Wikimedia##

The Alaskan Way Viaduct, damaged decades ago, will be rebuilt as an underground highway, even though a more transit-focused option would have been at least as effective at reducing congestion. Photo: Rootology/Wikimedia

A recent report by U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group, “Highway Boondoggles: Wasted Money and America’s Transportation Future,” examines 11 of the most wasteful, least justifiable road projects underway in America right now. Here’s the latest installment in our series profiling the various bad decisions that funnel so much money to infrastructure that does no good. 

Seattle’s aging Alaskan Way Viaduct is a crumbling and seismically vulnerable elevated highway along the city’s downtown waterfront. After an earthquake damaged the structure in 2001, state engineers decided that the highway needed to come down, but the question of how (and whether) to replace it sparked nearly a decade of heated debate. The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) rejected calls to replace the viaduct with a combination of surface street and transit improvements, choosing instead an option that would result in more capacity: boring a mammoth tunnel underneath the city’s urban core. At 57 feet in diameter, it would be the widest bored tunnel ever attempted, with the full project carrying an estimated cost of at least $3.1 billion and perhaps as much as $4.1 billion.

Digging a double-decker tunnel was always the riskiest option for replacing the viaduct. The tunnel carried a high risk of going over even its exorbitant budget. In 2010, WSDOT acknowledged a 40 percent chance of a cost overrun, with a 5 percent risk that overruns could top $415 million.

With Bertha trapped underground, cost overruns could go into Big Dig territory. Image: U.S. PIRG and Frontier Group

With Bertha trapped underground, cost overruns could go into Big Dig territory. Graph: U.S. PIRG and Frontier Group

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Southern California Road Agency Courts Bankruptcy With Highway Addition

California 241 needs an extension so more people can not use it. Photo: Transportation Corridor Agencies via U.S. PIRG and Frontier Group

California 241 needs an extension so more people can not use it. Photo: Transportation Corridor Agencies via U.S. PIRG and Frontier Group

Today, U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group released a new report, “Highway Boondoggles: Wasted Money and America’s Transportation Future.” In it, they examine 11 of the most wasteful, least justifiable road projects underway in America right now.

This week we’ve previewed the report with posts about the proposed Effingham Parkway in Savannah, Georgia and the harebrained scheme to widen I-240 through Asheville, North CarolinaHere we continue with an egregious example from the Golden State. 

Southern California’s toll road agency has proposed extending an existing toll highway that might eventually span inland Orange County and connect to Interstate 5. The number of cars on previous sections of the highway, however, have failed to meet projections. Also, the agency is already struggling to avoid default on its debts.

California 241 is one of several toll roads in Orange County built and operated by the legislature-created Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA). California officials enabled the creation of toll roads in the area in the late 1980s amid both a shortage of state transportation funding and the perception of insatiable demand for more highways.

Traffic on California 241, however, hasn’t met official projections for a decade. In recent years — and especially since the collapse of the housing bubble in 2007 — driving on existing sections of California 241 has declined.

The TCA measures road use by counting the number of transactions conducted by toll payers on the combined Foothill/Eastern Toll Roads, which include not only Route 241 but also Routes 133 and 261. The TCA’s count shows fewer transactions in fiscal year 2014 than in fiscal 2004. As indicated by the dotted trend line below, there were about 32 million fewer transactions in fiscal year 2014 than would have been expected if the trend from 2000 to 2006 had continued.

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Will Missouri Voters Go Along With the Highway Lobby’s Money Grab?

Next week, Missouri voters will decide on Amendment 7 — a three-quarter-cent sales tax hike to pay for transportation projects that would be the largest tax increase in the state’s history. Construction industry groups have poured millions into convincing Missourians to pay $5.4 billion over the next 10 years. Will they bite?

A coalition of pro-transit forces is urging them not to. Thomas Shrout, a long-time St. Louis transit advocate, is heading the opposition, a group called Missourians for Better Transportation Solutions. Shrout says the tax fails on a number of levels.

For one, 85 percent of the money would be spent on roads. Only 7 percent would go to transit and a small portion would go toward local governments.

“It’s just out of proportion,” said Shrout.

Highway capacity in slow-growing Missouri is already abundant. Compared to other American cities, Kansas City and St. Louis rank near the top in highway miles per capita. Driving has been declining nationwide and Missouri’s population grew less than 1 percent over the last 13 years.

So why the push to raise taxes to build new roads? Follow the money. “Just about every major [engineering and construction] firm in the country has given to the Yes campaign,” Shrout told Streetsblog.

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Building Cloverleafs Won’t Inspire Americans to Pay More for Transportation

The federal transportation fund is running out of money, threatening the country with potholes, stopped construction, and economic downturn. Congress, which has kept the program solvent with short-term patches for years, now finds itself unable to do more than buy a few months’ time.

Mainstream opinion pins the blame for this state of affairs on partisanship and anti-tax extremism. But the crisis has a deeper cause. In transportation, as in so many areas of American politics, the terms of debate are controlled by an elite that has lost touch with the rest of the country.

Voters on both the Tea Party right and the urban left have lost the desire to pay higher taxes for new roads. Yet powerful highway bureaucracies and their political allies insist that added revenues must go toward ever more cloverleafs and interstates. They keep searching for money to build what voters don’t want to pay for, a quest doomed to end in futility.

The roots of the congressional deadlock are best seen far from Washington.

When Texas Governor Rick Perry took office in 2000, he found himself caught between campaign contributors’ yearning to build expressways and conservative hostility to tax increases. He sought a way out with an aggressive program of toll-road building.

But when the highways opened, drivers rebelled against the stiff fees. Revenue fell far below forecasts, and grassroots activists launched an anti-toll campaign. At last month’s state Republican convention, the insurgents triumphed. The state party platform now calls for no new tolls (as well as no new taxes).

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Other Cities Look to Tear Down Their Old Highways, But Not Denver

Denver's plan for I-70 is to bury it, widen it and cap it. Image: I70east.com

Denver’s plan for I-70 is to widen it, bury it, and cap a small part of it. Photo: I70east.com

Denver has one of those golden opportunities that many American cities are seizing: An elevated highway that damaged neighborhoods is nearing the end of its life, giving the city an opening to repair the harm.

Unfortunately, as Tanya has reported, Denver seems poised to double down on highway building instead. The city is looking to bury and widen Interstate 70 through the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood, then cap a small section. The $1.8 billion proposal would add four lanes to I-70 — two in each direction — for a total of 10 lanes.

This visualization shows how the highway would look widened and with a cap. Image: I70east.com

A look at the proposal to sink and widen I-70 and put an 800-foot-long park on it. Image: I70east.com

While Denver has been booming in general, the neighborhoods bisected by I-70, which was laid down through the city in the 1950s, haven’t shared in the good fortune. Thanks to the many trucks roaring through and the eyesore of the elevated highway, Elyria-Swansea and nearby communities suffer from excessive traffic, environmental problems, and disinvestment.

Proponents of the highway plan call it a “corridor of opportunity” and are promising a network of parks, open space, and transit. A big sweetener is the proposed 800-foot-long park they say would be built on the highway lid.

But according to community activist and  former City Council member Susan Barnes-Gelt, the design does little to mend connections between the two neighborhoods. She says there’s no excuse for widening highways through urban neighborhoods in an age when many cities are choosing to tear them down.

In a Denver Post editorial earlier this year, Barnes-Gelt wrote that under Mayor Michael Hancock, what could have been a big step forward for the city is “morphing back into a highway project.” It’s especially disappointing considering Denver’s recent history of smart planning, she said.

“This is what happens when people that can make a difference don’t pay attention,” she told Streetsblog.

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Moving Cars vs. Investing in Places — The Struggle for American Cities

milwaukee_I94

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker wants to jam an even bigger version of I-94 through the Story Hill neighborhood in Milwaukee.

In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker and Mayor Tom Barrett are brawling in the press over a proposed highway project — a fight that exemplifies the enormous rift in America about what transportation policy should accomplish.

Walker still thinks about transportation projects the same way the interstate planners of the 1950s thought about them. In his view, the economy depends on moving cars and trucks.

So naturally, Walker insists on plowing a $1.2 billion expansion of Interstate 94 through Milwaukee. Among the options on the table is a proposal to double-deck a portion of the highway through a densely populated neighborhood. According to Walker and the state DOT, spending a ton of money to stack highway lanes on top of highway lanes is a practical solution to aid the economy in this barely growing metro area.

“I think the last thing you want to do is have employers look to go bypass the city of Milwaukee when they’re talking about jobs and commerce here,” Walker told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “So you’ve got to make sure there’s a good transportation system.”

One person who disagrees vehemently is Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. In this case, Barrett represents a very different school of thought about transportation and planning — he thinks investing in places, not traffic movement, will make his city better off.

Barrett told the Journal Sentinel that he’s “mystified” by Walker’s refusal to pull the double-decker option off the table. He said he would do everything in his power to stop the additional highway deck, which would have a “negative impact on property values and disrupt the lives” of residents of the Story Hill neighborhood.

Admittedly, there’s more going on here than contentious views about transportation. Walker and Barrett are political rivals who’ve faced off twice for the governor’s chair. But in many ways they embody the broader debate about American transportation policy — the tug of war between the Eisenhower-era mentality of moving traffic at all costs, and the seemingly ascendant notion that public wellbeing depends on transportation decisions that make places healthy and economically strong.

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8 Monster Interchanges That Blight American Cities

Ramming highways through the middle of American cities was undoubtedly one of the worst mistakes of the 20th century — demolishing urban habitat, dividing neighborhoods, and erecting structures that suck the life out of places. What could be worse than a highway through the middle of town? How about when two highways intersect, with all their assorted high-speed ramps carving out huge chunks of land to move cars.

But despite their massive scale and the huge sums we spend on them, highway interchanges in American cities can seem invisible. After all, no one ever goes to hang out by the interchange.

So, to give you a good look, we put together this list of some of the most enormous interchanges in U.S. cities. Just imagine what cities could do with all this space…

Louisville: Kennedy Interchange (64/65/71)

Louisville’s Kennedy Interchange sits just south of downtown, forming an immense barrier to the city’s waterfront. Gigantic as it may be, this interchange will be getting even bigger as Kentucky and Indiana move forward with the $2.6 billion Ohio River Bridges project. Even the New York Times lamented the effect of this highway expansion on downtown neighborhoods. But when Louisville activists argued that a portion of the roadway feeding into the interchange should be torn down, they were steamrolled by powerful political interests.

Screen Shot 2014-06-27 at 2.38.36 PM

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7 Photos Show How Detroit Hollowed Out During the Highway Age

While searching for images of highway interchanges in urban areas, I came across these historic aerial photos of Detroit on a message board, showing how the city fabric has slowly eroded. It’s a remarkable record of a process that has scarred many other American cities.

1949: Here’s what the east side of the city looked like right at the middle of the century, with Gratiot Avenue forming the diagonal. Detroit was a big, bustling city.

1949

1952: Just a few years later though, urban renewal and other city-clearing initiatives were already leaving their mark.

1952

1961: Almost a decade later, you can see a large space south of Gratiot had been cleared to make way for Lafayette Park, a neighborhood of high-rise residential towers.

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Study: Corrupt States Spend More on Highways

In states with higher levels of corruption, public officials spend more on construction, roads and safety services. Image: Public Administration Review via Governing

A new study found a link between highway spending and official corruption. Map: Public Administration Review via Governing

A new academic study helps explain the enduring political popularity of expensive transportation boondoggles like Birmingham’s $4.7 billion Northern Beltline and Kentucky’s $2.6 billion Ohio River Bridges.

According to research published in the journal Public Administration Review, states with higher levels of public corruption spend more money on highways and construction. The study found highway and construction projects and police programs provide the most opportunities for lawmakers to enrich themselves, according to Governing Magazine, and are positively correlated with state levels of corruption. Meanwhile, highly corrupt states also spend relatively less on health, education, and welfare — categories that were less susceptible to graft and bribery, the report found.

Public corruption for each state was ranked based on 25,000 convictions between 1976 and 2008. Overall, the authors found, the 10 most corrupt states spend $1,300 more per person annually than the average state.