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We’re on a road to nowhere

By Matt Casale
Director, 21st Century Transportation Campaign

During the 2008 presidential election, Sarah Palin introduced the country to the phrase “bridge to nowhere.” She claimed that she told Congress “thanks, but no thanks” to $223 million earmarked for a bridge that many claimed was an example of wasteful government spending on politicians’ pet projects. 

Say what you will about Sarah Palin (and whether she actually turned down that money or not), but the idea that we shouldn’t be spending hundreds of millions of dollars on infrastructure projects that deliver little benefit resonates. Obviously, it didn’t win John McCain the election, but whenever she brought it up, the applause would get a little louder.

That bridge in Alaska isn’t the only example of poorly conceived and wasteful pet infrastructure projects from American history, but it’s probably become the most infamous. You might think that after it became such a high profile issue, we’d have moved on from that sort of thing.

Think again. 

In Illinois, Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s recent transportation bill includes a baffling $205 million highway expansion to the Peotone Airport. The problem? The Peotone Airport doesn’t exist. Sure, it’s not a bridge to nowhere, but what we’ve got on our hands is definitely a road to nowhere. 

Expanding a highway in general is problematic. Expanding a highway with a destination that doesn’t exist is absurd. 

Misguided road building sets off a chain of bad reactions. More cars take to the road to fill up the new capacity, meaning traffic gets more backed up, global warming emissions increase and air quality gets worse. Highway construction is also expensive, and the precious dollars spent laying new pavement could be spent better elsewhere -- such as maintaining and repairing the roads we already have, expanding transit systems or building safer streets to walk and bike on. 

Yet, policy makers consistently prioritize spending on new highway projects. Cutting the ribbon on a new highway project is a favorite event for most politicians. For years at U.S. PIRG, we’ve called highway expansions “boondoggles” for a reason. A boondoggle is something that is wasteful or pointless but gives the appearance of having value. The appearance of value is a powerful thing. 

So maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that Illinois is proposing to widen another Chicago area highway. That said, the circumstances here stick out. The Peotone Airport is a proposed airport in the southern suburbs of Chicago. Right now, the area where the new airport and new road would be built is mostly farmland. The idea would be to pave over a bunch of farms to bring in a lot more people, cars and air pollution. 

Does the Chicago area even need another airport? Probably not. It already has several and a couple have capacity to expand. But even if another airport is needed, does it make sense to build in such a remote location that lacks good transportation links?

But of course, if we just built a new highway, then it will make sense to put an airport in Peotone. After all, midwesterners know well that if you build it, they will come

Wait. No. That’s not how this should work. 

Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the nation and is a driving force behind air pollution. There’s no world in which we can address global warming and clean up our air where we don’t fundamentally change how we get around. So we shouldn’t be building new major destinations in places only accessible by car, let alone building the road first and then the destination. 

Not only that, but that $205 million earmarked for this project could easily be put to better use. That would be enough to make if faster and easier to get O’Hare International Airport by public transportation or to begin work on extending the Chicago Transit Authority’s Red Line to the city’s southern limits. These two things would provide a lot more value than the new highway. 

So Illinois, please put that money to better use. Because I might be wrong, but I doubt the “paradise” at the end of the Talking Heads’ “Road to Nowhere” was a non-existent airport. 

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