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Bad Verdicts on Equally Bad Highway Projects

By Sean Doyle
Democracy Digital Organizer

Two highway projects, representative of some of the worst such projects in the nation, received the nod from officials recently. If you’re a fan of wasteful, outdated highway expansion projects that cannibalize scarce transportation dollars, then it was a good week. But if you care about the concerns of local communities, fiscal responsibility, public health, the environment, and giving people more and better mobility options in America, the support for these highway projects was unwelcome news.

In North Carolina, the highway project in question will widen I-77 from Charlotte to Cornelius (about 20 miles north) to facilitate adding tolled “express” lanes. This expansion was so low on the list of priority projects in the state that it wasn’t expected to get funded for another 20 years. But instead of waiting, the state came up with a complex set of subsidies and signed a contract with a foreign construction company to build and manage the lanes for the next 50 years. 

Concerned residents in North Carolina have repeatedly objected to the 50-year contract with I-77 Mobility Partners, a subsidiary of Spain-based Cintra, to build the lanes. Residents and local officials are concerned that the project will negatively impact control of local transportation decision-making for decades; make transit additions more difficult in the region; and possibly expose taxpayers to financial repercussions if toll revenue is below target expectations.

Yet recently, instead of taking an opportunity to cancel the contract, North Carolina legislators tacitly endorsed the wasteful plan. In early June, the North Carolina House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a bi-partisan bill that would cancel the controversial project, but soon thereafter state Senate Republicans decided not to even vote on the popular bill, clearing the way for the project to move forward.

Sadly, the I-77 widening wasn’t the only boondoggle to get the green light recently. Three states to the south in Florida, the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO, which includes Tampa, FL), voted 12-4 to approve the controversial Tampa Bay Express Lanes (TBX). TBX is a $6 billion highway expansion and toll lane project in and around Tampa that will increase congestion by up to 24 percent, according state’s own data. The project will also increase pollution and displace local residents and businesses, many of them low income and minority, in areas currently undergoing economic revitalization.

For the last year and a half, local residents have been rallying against TBX. The Tampa City Council has voted against the plan twice since then, following public outcry. At the MPO meeting where the fate of the project was set to be decided, the vote was delayed for eight and a half hours because of the volume of testimony from those both for and against TBX. Ultimately, the MPO board approved the $6 billion highway boondoggle.

Projects like the I-77 expansion and TBX have been sold to the public on the grounds that they will help reduce congestion. However, a growing body of evidence suggests that, in the long-run, highway expansion is ineffectual at combating congestion. Perhaps the most prominent example of this can be found in Texas, where state officials spent $2.8 billion expanding the Katy Freeway to up to 30 lanes at points, making it among the widest highways in the world. The result: the expansion incentivized additional driving that soon offset the short-term benefits, causing commute times in the morning and afternoon to increase 30 and 55 percent respectively. 

Both projects fall flat on their merits, and each faced fierce local opposition. But key decision makers have been tone-deaf to the concerns of those who these projects will impact. 

If there is any good news, it is that the fight to stop these project is not over. In North Carolina, lawmakers may try again next year to cancel the contract, which lasts for 50 years. And in Florida, construction in Tampa isn’t set to begin until 2021 and the MPO will have to vote to approve TBX every year until then. Like local communities, we’ll continue to fight against these wasteful highway projects while there are still opportunities to stop them. 

The approval for these projects should be a lesson -- for North Carolina, Florida, and states across the country -- about the need to invest in a multitude of transportation options rather than double down on the failed policies of the past. Funding for transportation is scarce, and wasting billions expanding highways is a poor use of that money. It reflects a twentieth century mentality that has proven time and again to be ineffective. The simple truth is that we can’t build our way out of congestion with more or wider highways. 

To create a twenty-first century transportation system, we need to first invest in maintenance and repair and then focus on investing in healthy and environmentally friendly forms of transportation that give people options for how to get around. Expanding transit, walking infrastructure, and biking facilities can provide the solutions we need to reduce pollution and congestion, and to better empower all Americans. 

For more information see our report, Highway Boondoggles 2, which profiled both of these projects.

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