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A new study by the North Carolina Public Interest Research Group (NC PIRG) Education Fund and Frontier Group identifies 12 of the most wasteful highway expansion projects across the country, slated to collectively cost at least $24 billion. Making the list of national highway boondoggles is the proposed I-77 Express Lanes, expected to cost $647 million. The new study details how despite America’s massive repair and maintenance backlog, and in defiance of America’s changing transportation needs, state governments across the country, including North Carolina, continue to spend billions each year on new and wider highways. The study shows how some of these highway projects are outright boondoggles.
“North Carolina continues to push forward with this expensive and controversial project that has been met with significant local opposition,” said Dan DeRosa, North Carolina PIRG Education Fund Advocate. “This project locks the state into a 50-year contract where it would have to compensate private partners for any traffic that new transit developments would draw away from the road,” he noted. Under the current agreement, if the tolls don’t generate the expected revenue ($13 billion over 5 years), then the state will be on the hook for hundreds of million in additional taxpayer dollars.
According to federal data, North Carolina has 2,199 structurally deficient bridges, over 1 in 10. However, the state continues to focus on highway expansion, spending an average of 83 percent of available funding on expansion and only 17 percent on repair. At the same time, transportation behavior is changing.
“America’s long-term travel needs are changing, especially among Millennials, who are driving fewer miles, getting driver licenses in fewer numbers, and expressing greater preferences to live in areas where they do not need to use a car often,” said Tony Dutzik, Senior Policy Analyst at Frontier Group. “Despite the fact that Millennials are the nation’s largest generation, and the unquestioned consumers of tomorrow’s transportation system, North Carolina is failing to adequately respond to these changing trends.” he added.
The study recommends that states:
- Adopt fix-it-first policies that reorient transportation funding away from highway expansion and toward repair of existing roads and bridges;
- Invest in transportation solutions that reduce the need for costly and disruptive highway expansion projects by improving and expanding public transit, biking, and walking options;
- Give priority to funding transportation projects that reduce the number of vehicle-miles people travel each year, thereby also reducing air pollution, carbon emissions, and future road repair and maintenance needs;
- Include future maintenance costs, a range of potential future housing and transportation trends, and the availability of new transportation options such as car-sharing, bike-sharing, ride-sharing, and transit in transportation project selection decisions;
- Invest in research and data collection to better track, and more aptly react, to ongoing shifts in how people travel.
The report also looks back at the 11 highway boondoggles identified last year. Since the original report came out, several states have revisited plans to expand and build new highways, realizing that the money could be more wisely spent elsewhere. For example, the Trinity Parkway project in Dallas has been revised from a six-lane road to a more limited 4-lane road, and the original proposal to create a double-decker tunnel for I-94 in Milwaukee has been postponed for the foreseeable future. Similarly, the Illiana Expressway, a proposed $1.3 billion to $2.8 billion toll-way intended to stretch from I-55 in Illinois to I-65 in Indiana, has been placed on indefinite hold.
“Investing so heavily in new and wider highways at a time when so much of our existing infrastructure is in terrible disrepair is akin to putting an extension on your house while the roof is leaking. It just doesn’t make any sense," said Dan DeRosa.
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