- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 21, 2016

As states across the country bemoan a lack of funds to repair crumbling roads and bridges, a new report offers 12 examples of questionable highway-expansion projects that could cost taxpayers as much as $24 billion.

The expansion projects are intended to reduce congestion and improve economic stability in the states, but actually could worsen traffic and harm nearby communities, according to the report from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG).

Some examples of the projects cited in the report:

• An $11.2 billion plan to widen Interstate 95 across the entirety of Connecticut. The plan aims to reduce congestion, but research suggests adding a lane would encourage more drivers to use the highway and create more traffic.

• A $3.3 billion plan to build the Tampa Bay Express Lanes in Florida. The toll lanes would allow drivers to bypass Interstates 275, 75 and 4, but would uproot community facilities and might not help reduce traffic.

• The multibillion Puget Sound Gateway in Washington, which aims to reduce traffic in areas where congestion has not grown for more than a decade, and diverts funding away from much-needed bridge repairs throughout the state.

The projects reflect a growing trend of states spending more to build new roads than maintaining existing thoroughfares.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, the states collectively spent $20.4 billion annually to build new roadways and expand highways between 2009 and 2011. The construction added 8,822 lane-miles of roadway by 2011, less than 1 percent of the country’s total state-owned road network.

During that time the states spent $16.5 billion annually repairing and preserving the other 99 percent of the network, even while roads across the country were deteriorating.

“Many state governments continue to prioritize wasteful highway projects that fail to effectively address congestion while leaving our roads and bridges to crumble,” said John Olivieri, national campaign director for 21st Century Transportation at the U.S. PIRG Education Fund and co-author of the report. “This, in turn, saddles future generations with massive repair and maintenance backlogs that only grow more painful and expensive to fix the longer we wait to do so.”

For spending billions of tax dollars on highway expansions while existing roads fall into disrepair, the transportation departments in Connecticut, Florida, Washington and nine other states win this week’s Golden Hammer, a weekly distinction awarded by The Washington Times to highlight examples of questionable uses of taxpayer money.

“While existing roads and bridges are in need of repair, it’s irresponsible for any government to waste millions of taxpayer dollars on unnecessary projects like these. The tired government complaint of a lack of funds rings hollow in the face of these boondoggles,” said Curtis Kalin, spokesman for the nonpartisan Citizens Against Government Waste.

Almost all of the projects cited in the U.S. PIRG report aim to reduce congestion by adding more lanes to busy highways, but research has suggested that increasing highway capacity only creates more traffic in a phenomenon called “induced demand.” It occurs when new roads increase congestion because motorists who had curbed their driving habits begin to use the fresh roadways.

However, transportation experts say “induced demand” does not apply in all instances of road-building, especially those in which expansions make use of toll roads.

In response to inquiries from The Times, transportation officials in several states said the report overlooks key details of specific projects and contains serious flaws.

“This study demonstrates a gross misunderstanding of the region’s ground transportation and economic challenges,” Sean Logan, chairman of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, said of the report’s claims that the Mon/Fayette Expressway expansion would not reduce traffic and would hurt the region’s economy.

“The Mon/Fayette Expressway is one of several new infrastructure projects the commission is developing that will work together to ease severe congestion, improve safety and mobility and spur development,” Mr. Logan said in an email. “It provides a much needed alternative from Pittsburgh’s growing eastern suburbs to the Pittsburgh International Airport. It is indeed telling that the organization conducting the so-called study never even bothered to contact the PA Turnpike Commission for information regarding the project.”

Claudia Bingham Baker, a spokeswoman for the Washington Department of Transportation, said the report “contains several inaccuracies,” including the estimated price tag for the Puget Sound Gateway expansion. U.S. PIRG estimated the project would cost between $2.8 billion and $3.1 billion, but the state Legislature so far has funded $1.87 billion for the project.

U.S. PIRG blasted the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) for going forward with a decades-old plan to construct the Tampa Bay Expressway toll lanes, saying the expansion would tear up neighborhoods and community facilities.

An FDOT spokeswoman said the department has been working closely with communities that will be affected by the expansion and stressed the need for expansion on the busy road.

“There is a very delicate balance between impacts to established communities and relieving the congestion faced by the 180,000 vehicles a day that travel I-275 as residents, visitors, commuters, truckers, and more move through this region,” FDOT said in an email. “The not-so affectionately called Malfunction Junction, the I-4/I-275 (Downtown Interchange), needs to be completely rebuilt to relieve local and regional congestion and to accommodate transit.”

The U.S. PIRG report argues that the funding for expansion projects could be put to better use maintaining existing roads and improving other forms of transportation.

For example, it would cost $1.2 billion to replace all of the structurally deficient bridges in Washington; meanwhile, the state is spending nearly $2 billion on the Puget Sound Gateway.

And some studies show that long-term transportation trends are changing as millennials drive less frequently.

Young Americans drove 23 percent fewer miles on average in 2009 than they did in 2001, and young people today are less likely to get their driver’s licenses than in the past. New studies continue to show that younger generations want to drive less and would prefer their government invest in modern transportation alternatives like high-speed rail and enhanced bike lanes.

“In an age where businesses have to be ever more responsive to changing markets and demographics, too many government planners are stuck in 20th, even 19th century modes of thinking. Those of us who are tired of driving over foot-deep potholes or enduring 30-minute subway delays should insist on better value,” said Pete Sepp, president of the National Taxpayers Union.

• Kellan Howell can be reached at khowell@washingtontimes.com.

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