The cost of urban freeways

Robert Steuteville, Better! Cities & Towns

Steve Mouzon of Original Green posted an illuminating blog on the destruction of real estate values adjacent to urban limited-access highways.

Mouzon argues that reduced real estate values could exceed a trillion dollars — double of the cost of the entire Interstate system.

The analysis is based on a sample of 11 properties along a street in Indianapolis at various distances from the I-65/70. Mouzon concludes that $99 million in real estate value is lost in a one-mile stretch of urban freeway at that location. He multiplies that substantial figure by 11,832 miles of freeways that go directly through cities, and concludes that the total loss of value is $1.17 trillion nationwide.

He dubs the urban freeway the “cheapway” in reference to the low value of adjacent property.

“It is so named because it has likely destroyed over a trillion dollars of real estate value around it in the US and drains municipal coffers across the country of billions in property taxes and sales tax revenues. As a matter of fact, most cheapways destroy substantially more real estate value than the several-million-per-mile that it costs to construct them,” says Mouzon.

He goes on to blame “cheapways” for flight from cities. Wherever they were built “crime and decline followed,” he says.

Mouzon’s analysis comes at a time when many are looking at tearing down aging urban freeways and replacing them with surface streets. The Congress for the New Urbanism recently released its “Freeways Without Futures” list of the top 10 candidates for teardowns in North America. Philadelphia recently held a forum to discuss redevelopment possibilities from dismantling a portion of I-95 and reconnecting downtown to the river.

Mouzon circulated his blog on listserves and private emails among urbanists, many of whom praised his efforts. But one respondent warned against the appearance of “overreaching” in the extrapolation of such a large number from a single point along the Interstate system.

An urban designer based in Georgia noted that freeways have both destroyed and created value. The value was destroyed closer to the city center, he explained, and created 20 miles out in the suburbs.

For some respondents, Mouzon’s term “cheapways” did not ring the bell. “Expenseways,” which sounds more like “expressways,” was proposed as an alternative.

I like “expenseways” because it emphasizes how expensive urban freeways have been to cities. They were expensive not only in construction and maintenance costs, but also to neighborhood health and property values. Mouzon’s analysis supports that conclusion — yet more research is needed to determine just how costly urban freeways have been to the urban built environment and what we can gain, economically and socially, from a new transportation strategy.

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