America needs to kick its highway habit

By Matt Casale
Director, 21st Century Transportation Campaign

Image: TexDOT

Like most cities in the U.S., Houston has a traffic problem. The city has the second-most expensive commute in the country, due to long trips on its congested highways. The metro area’s roads are the deadliest in the nation, and according to the Houston Chronicle, the “death toll is the equivalent of three fully-loaded 737s crashing each year at Houston’s airports, killing all aboard.” Finally, due in part to vehicle Houston was ranked among the most polluted cities in the country in 2019.

You would think that the city of Houston and the state of Texas would be working on transportation improvements that address these problems, right?

In some ways, they are. Houston’s Complete Communities program is working to improve neighborhoods, including programs for safer streets and bike lanes. The city’s Walkable Places project is working to “create more vibrant, walkable streets that support alternative modes of transportation.” And Houston has big plans for a fast and reliable transit system for the future.

But at the same time, the state is pushing through a more than $7 billion widening of I-45 through the middle of the city. The new highway lanes, according to U.S. PIRG Education Fund’s Highway Boondoggles 5 report, will mean more driving, more traffic, more pollution and more crashes.

But the Texas Department of Transportation (TexDOT) won’t tell you that. They want you to believe that driving on this highway will be a dream, and that it will fix all our traffic woes. Just look at their own rendering of the proposed highway (pictured above): there’s no traffic (it also glosses over the fact that homes, businesses and places of worship will need to be displaced to build the highway).

You can count the number of cars and trucks in TexDOT’s image. I did. There are forty-seven cars and thirteen trucks. But when you consider that more than 2 million people live in Houston and 91 percent of households own at least one car, the idea that there will be forty-seven cars and thirteen trucks on this highway just doesn’t pass the smell test.

Look at the Katy Freeway, also in Houston (pictured below). The state spent $2.8 billion to widen the Katy Freeway between 2003 and 2008, but 85 percent of commute times increased after the project was completed. And there are a whole lot more than forty-seven cars and thirteen trucks on the highway.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

That’s what happens when you widen highways. More people take to the roads and the new cars quickly fill up the new space, returning the road to gridlock in no time. It’s so predictable it’s called “The Fundamental Law of Road Congestion.”

You might be thinking, “Well, that’s Texas, of course they’re building big, new roads.”

But it’s not just Texas. States across the country are still spending billions of dollars every year widening highways, usually in the name of congestion relief. These dollars are not being well spent. The projects don’t do a good job reducing traffic, but they do exacerbate the very real safety, health and environmental problems with our transportation system.

This week, U.S. PIRG released the latest version of our Highway Boondoggles report, the fifth of its kind. Along with Houston’s I-45 proposal, among the highways profiled in the latest version is the High Desert Freeway in California. The proposed $8 billion new highway is in stark contrast to California’s efforts to reduce state global warming emissions, L.A. County’s first new highway in 25 years would lead to more driving and more pollution, along with sprawling desert development. Also included is the proposed Tri-State Tollway Widening in Illinois. The highway outside Chicago is testament to the fact that you can’t build your way out of congestion. It has been widened twice, and still suffers from heavy traffic. Nevertheless, the Illinois Tollway is still moving forward with a $4 billion expansion project. The report also profiles the half a billion dollar I-5 Rose Quarter widening in Portland, Oregon. In a city that has taken great strides toward more sustainable transportation, the expensive highway project would constitute a step backward to car-dependent policies of the past, while likely failing to meaningfully improve safety compared with other investment strategies.

Looking back at highways from previous versions of Highway Boondoggles, the stakes are clear. In some cases – like in Ohio, which followed through with two misguided projects – states continued down a road of needless highway spending, ultimately finding themselves in a budget hole. Other cases – like two stories of successful community efforts to stop bad projects in Tampa Bay and Dallas – show that the decision to reject a highway can lead to new possibilities for community improvement.

After profiling 50 misguided and harmful highway projects across every region of the country over the course of five reports, it’s clear that America has a bad highway habit. If we want cleaner air, safer roads and healthier communities, we have to kick that habit.

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