- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 3, 2019

A public interest advocacy group has identified the country’s “most wasteful and pointless” transportation projects, which are costing taxpayers $25 billion.

The U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) cites among “the biggest boondoggles” a $2.2 billion widening of Interstate 81 in Virginia, a $7 billion interstate project in Houston and a $802 million “Connecting Miami” redesign of city highways.

According to PIRG, widening highways to reduce gridlock fails for several reasons. Multiple studies show that more road space over time leads to further congestion because of a phenomenon called “induced demand.”

“We’re stuck in a car-centric rut in the United States,” said Matthew Casale, PIRG transportation campaign director and the study’s co-author. “Yet states continue to spend billions building highways that will exacerbate traffic problems, increase pollution, destroy neighborhoods, encourage sprawl and consume billions of more taxpayer dollars for maintenance.”

The fifth installment of PIRG’s annual “Highway Boondoggles” report, developed with the nonpartisan Frontier Group think tank, also criticizes projects in California, Michigan, Illinois, Oregon and North Carolina. It warns state and local governments against publicly financing “counterproductive” highway projects when the country is facing a backlog of critical repairs on existing roads, bridges and other infrastructure.

PIRG released the report as President Trump and Congress were tussling over a $2 trillion plan to upgrade American roads, highways, ports and airports.

Officials from some of the targeted projects reject PIRG’s characterizations and argue that their efforts have merit for the commuters and communities they serve.

In Virginia, PIRG singled out a $2.2 billion widening of Interstate 81 and highlighted potential damage to Civil War sites as a consequence. It also warned about safety dangers because the highway’s speed limit is expected to increase to 70 mph.

Virginia Department of Transportation officials told The Washington Times that the project is driven by a bipartisan consensus, support from the Democratic administration of Gov. Ralph Northam and data-driven metrics to “prioritize improvements based on their benefits in safety, congestion, and access to jobs relative to cost.”

“Anyone who has driven even a small portion of the 325 miles of Interstate 81 in Virginia knows there are improvements that can be made,” a VDOT spokesman said in an email.

Virginia state Delegate Tony Wilt, a Republican member of the committee that identifies and prioritizes projects, also disputed the report’s safety and environmental impacts of expanding I-81.

“I don’t agree with [the PIRG report] at all that any construction improvements aren’t going to be beneficial. That’s nonsense,” Mr. Wilt was reported as saying.

Last week, Virginia’s U.S. senators — Tim Kaine and Mark R. Warner, both Democrats — issued letters calling for more federal funding to support I-81 improvement projects.

In southern Pennsylvania, PIRG has listed the $300 million expansion of Interstate 83 from four to six lanes as wasteful. It says congestion results from crashes and that the state should improve its responses. PIRG says it has documents to back up its claim.

Mike Crochunis, a state transportation spokesman, said the problem is short on- and offramps on highways and narrow bridges.

PIRG, he said, is “welcome to come visit and drive it and see what they think.”

In Miami and Houston, local media highlighted featured projects and quoted local officials as saying their cities are long overdue for infrastructure upgrades to meet increasing demands from surging population growth.

PIRG’s report reexamined projects it profiled in previous editions of its study. Researchers noted that three have been canceled, three have been revised and 16 have received additional study. Thirteen projects are under construction.

It also showcased a transportation policy shift in Wisconsin. State officials canceled a $1 billion Interstate 94 East-West project that PIRG had featured.

Last year, then-Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, reversed his support after acknowledging that transportation systems evolve. PIRG said Wisconsin lawmakers are still trying to revive the project.

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