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Highway Boondoggles

Year after year, state and local governments propose billions of dollars’ worth of new and expanded highways that often do little to reduce congestion or address real transportation challenges, while diverting scarce funding from infrastructure repairs and key transportation priorities. 

Since 2014, U.S. PIRG has documented 58 wasteful or unnecessary highway projects, originally slated to cost a total of $135 billion. Learn about projects in your area using the map and search tool below.

The problem with highway boondoggles

America’s aging roads and bridges need fixing. Our car-dependent transportation system is dangerous, harms our communities, and is the nation’s leading source of global warming pollution. And more than ever before, it is clear that America needs to invest in giving people healthier, more sustainable transportation options.

Yet, every year, the United States spends billions of dollars expanding our existing highway network. These new highways typically impose financial, social and environmental costs, while their claimed benefits, such as reduced congestion, often fail to materialize. 

Highway expansions are expensive and saddle states with debt 

  • In 2014, the latest year for which data is available, federal, state and local governments spent $26 billion on highway expansion projects – sucking money away from road repair, transit and other local needs. 
  • From 2008 to 2018, the highway debt of state transportation agencies more than doubled, from $111 billion to $228 billion. 
  • New roadways are expensive to maintain and represent a lasting financial burden on the American people. The average new lane-mile of highway costs $24,000 per year to keep in a state of good repair. 

Highway expansion doesn’t solve congestion 

  • Expanding a highway sets off a chain reaction of societal decisions that ultimately lead to the highway becoming congested again – often in only a short time. Since 1980, the nation has added more than 870,000 lane-miles of highway – paving more than 1,652 square miles, an area larger than the state of Rhode Island – and yet pre-COVID congestion was worse than it was in the early 1980s. 

Highway expansion damages the environment and our communities

  • Highway expansion fuels additional driving that contributes to climate change. Transportation is the nation’s number one source of global warming pollution. 
  • Pollution from transportation causes tens of thousands of deaths in the U.S. each year and makes Americans more vulnerable to diseases such as COVID-19. 
  • Highway expansion can also cause irreparable harm to communities – forcing the relocation of homes and businesses, widening “dead zones” alongside highways, severing street connections for pedestrians and cars, and reducing a city’s base of taxable property.

To learn more about highway boondoggles in your area, find a project using the map and search tool above. Read our latest report in the series, Highway Boondoggles 6.

A smarter way

U.S. PIRG is calling on officials in state capitals across the country to adopt a fix-it-first approach to transportation planning, to stop highway boondoggles, and to invest in transportation projects that will make our communities safer and healthier. Specifically, we’re calling for policymakers to:

  • Invest in transportation solutions that reduce the need for costly and disruptive highway expansion projects. Investments in public transportation, road pricing measures, and technological measures that help drivers avoid peak-time traffic can often address congestion more cheaply and effectively than highway expansion.
  • Adopt fix-it-first policies that reorient transportation funding away from newer and wider highways and toward repair of existing roads, bridges and transit systems. 
  • Use the latest transportation data and require full cost-benefit comparisons, including future maintenance needs, to evaluate all proposed new and expanded highways. This includes projects proposed as public-private partnerships. 
  • Give priority funding to transportation projects that reduce growth in vehicle-miles traveled to account for the public health, environmental and climate benefits resulting from reduced driving.
  • Invest in research and data collection to better track and react to ongoing shifts in how people travel.

We’ve worked to promote smarter transportation planning for years, with a track record of success on this issue. Of the boondoggle projects we have identified, four have been cancelled and five have been put on hold, potentially saving states billions of dollars. Several other projects we have targeted are under study or being revised. 

Our team of research and policy experts works with state and local advocates to identify wasteful projects, and our base of members and supporters around the country lends support to efforts to stop them.

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