Our trillion dollar dirty little secret
It’s time to recognize that we can’t maintain the roads we have now, and that continuing down the path of highway expansion is both unaffordable and unnecessary.
The recent collapse of the I-5 bridge in Washington State is a stark reminder of the sorry state of our aging highway infrastructure. However, it is also a golden opportunity to begin a dialogue with the American public about a troubling issue that has not been adequately explained or discussed: our national transportation priorities are seriously outdated and are in dire need of reform. In short, we are continuing to waste enormous sums of tax dollars each year on the type of highway expansion projects that do little to ease traffic congestion problems over the long term and in fact often exacerbate them. Moreover, the high cost of new highway expansion is robbing us of the ability to restore our nation’s crumbling infrastructure and create a world-class transportation system for the 21st Century.
To understand this better, we need to understand how we’ve gotten to where we are now. In the decades that followed the end of World War II, the US built an unprecedented network of local, state, and interstate highways. In the early days of this expansion between the 1950s and 1970s, much of this expansion brought about dramatic improvement to mobility and productivity to several generations of Americans via the automobile, while enabling a new system of cheap consumer goods and economic growth. It also facilitated the equally unprecedented rise of new suburban development, built around the automobile, in the form of housing subdivisions, shopping centers, office parks, recreational facilities, and public institutions. Much of this dramatic expansion and change went unchallenged and became accepted as the basis for the economic engine of growth and for creating personal real estate wealth. We also assumed that this pattern of expansion could continue indefinitely, and in fact, most Americans still take this largely for granted today.
Note: This article is in the June 2013 of Better! Cities & Towns. Subscribe and get all of the reports packaged in a convenient, tactile format delivered to a special box on your doorstep. Some of our reports are for paid subscribers only.
An integral component of this new economic system that emerged in the postwar period was the practice of building highways to open up newly developing suburban areas outside of older central cities. While the original intent was to facilitate economic development, the goal of most highway expansion projects since the 1980s was primarily to relieve congestion on the previous generation of highways built in preceding decades. Thus began a silent “vicious cycle” of widening existing highways and building new ones to relieve growing traffic congestion. This initially seemed to alleviate traffic congestion in the short term, but invariably attracted new traffic and adjacent land development, which returned the highways to their former congested states. This eventually led to increased pressure for additional expansion to alleviate congestion, which again temporarily improved traffic flow, only to induce additional traffic and development, resulting in increased congestion, and so on.
Other reasons to change
As if the growing realization that we need to break out of the vicious cycle of highway-expansion-induced travel and sprawl development, increased traffic congestion, more highway expansion, etc., isn’t enough to reform our transportation policies, additional reasons compel us to change our course. Consider the following:
• Reality check for transportation agencies. For decades, transportation agencies throughout the US have planned and constructed successive rounds of highway expansion based on future traffic volume forecasts. Those forecasts have been determined largely by extrapolating past trends in the growth of traffic volumes — on the assumption that the trend line will simply continue into the future.
Surprisingly, something very different has happened: Since the mid 2000s, the trend in driving nationwide peaked, and is actually trending downward. This “peak” in vehicle miles traveled (VMT) occurred in 2005. A new report from US PIRG, entitled, “A New Direction: Our Changing Relationship with Driving and the Implications for America’s Future,” analyzes the recent drop in driving and looks at a future that includes less driving.
The decrease in driving among younger Americans is even more dramatic. Even Motor Trend magazine acknowledged the trend, running an article in its August, 2012 edition entitled, “Why Young People Are Driving Less: Is the Car Over?” While economics play a key role, another cause is that Millennials are seeking lifestyles and ways to connect socially that do not include the same dependence on driving as their predecessor generations.
The bottom line here is that if transportation agencies updated their models to acknowledge that the VMT trend line of the 20th Century can no longer be used to predict traffic volumes of the 21st Century, many of the planned highway expansion projects now on the books could no longer be justified.
• Bewildering priorities. There is a growing realization among state and municipal governments that an ever-widening gap has grown between the wish list of “needed” highway expansion projects in statewide transportation plans and the ability for these projects to ever be funded. Many states have been forced to defer indefinitely or cancel outright some projects, and are scratching their heads trying to figure out how they will ever be funded. At the same time, an enormous backlog of maintenance needed for existing highways and bridges is going unfunded or deferred. The Federal Highway Administration has identified $76 billion unmet need for replacing obsolete bridges alone. Yet, with these looming needs and stark new economic realities, the states are still, amazingly, spending over $100 billion on new highway capacity expansion projects just in the next five years as part of statewide transportation improvement program (STIP) budgets. This information was compiled by research from the Tristate Transportation Campaign in their 2012 report, “Tracking State Transportation Dollars.”
The map shows the extent to which each state prioritizes new highway capacity expansion over road and bridge maintenance and other modes of transportation. Reprioritizing that $100 billion toward fixing our deficient bridges instead of wasting it on unnecessary highway expansion would completely address our bridge needs — leaving use with a $24 billion surplus to put towards fixing existing roads. The roads, incidentally, were given a grade of “D” by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) in their most recent Infrastructure Report Card.
But that’s only part of the story: The STIP is only short term spending. When the cost of long range transportation plans, which identify needs for the next 20 to 30 years, is added, the money targeted for highway capacity expansion exceeds $1 trillion.
• Smarter investments needed. Today, state transportation agencies are complaining, “there’s no money for anything,” but in reality, they have money. It’s just being prioritized for costly highway expansion projects that lead to more congestion while consuming a large chunk of the limited funding pie. The prospect of unnecessary highway expansion projects gobbling up over $1 trillion over the next several decades only throws salt on the wound, in that the new highway construction must itself eventually be maintained and will further stress future transportation budgets that will become an even greater burden to future generations. Moreover, it leaves far less funding available for more sustainable forms of transportation including transit, pedestrian, and bicycle infrastructure. Just imagine redirecting that $1 trillion and, instead, investing it wisely toward addressing our nation’s critical infrastructure needs: fixing our existing highways, transit, rail, ports, aviation, schools, parks and other key infrastructure assets, for which ASCE has identified $3.6 trillion in need over the next 20 years.
In the next installment, I’ll examine why transportation policies haven’t been reformed and what needs to be done to change them.
Stu Sirota, AICP, is principal of TND Planning Group in Baltimore, Maryland.