Zombie Highway Projects


Jeff Inglis and Phineas Baxandall have co-authored a new PIRG report about “highway boondoggles” in which they profile 11 large road projects costing about $13 billion. These are projects long contemplated on paper, as part of long-range transportation plans assembled by metropolitan areas and states (such plans span 20 or more years and are required by federal law). However, the original rationale for the projects – data showing a convincing need for the additional, expensive lane mileage – has evaporated with traffic growth slowing to a crawl over the past decade.

Yet these costly projects, like zombies, refuse to die. Highway agencies remain committed to laying asphalt as per the original plans. As Inglis and Baxandall sum up:

[R]ationales—of speculative and uncertain promises of economic development, of the urgent need to address hypothetical future congestion on roads that have recently seen declines in traffic—may once have been sufficient in the days when highway revenue seemed endless and the competing demands for transportation funds seemed few. Today,  however, every dollar spent on a wasteful highway expansion project is a dollar that can’t be spent fixing our existing roads and transit systems, adding a new light rail line in a growing American city, or exploring ways to serve America’s changing transportation needs more effectively and efficiently

Exactly. Transportation agencies should adopt a fix-it-first policy for capital investments, and stick with it. It’s just plain dumb not to do so in an era of fiscal constraints. Yet as the report lays bare, even in the case of an agency—the Ohio Department of Transportation—with such a policy, it is simply ignored in the case of a $331-million road that would destroy part of a low-income Cleveland neighborhood.

This same project underscores the other maddening attribute of these projects – traffic in Cleveland is barely growing. Invariably these projects rely on boosterish, linear traffic growth projections, setting aside the trendlines of the 2000s which are often flat or nearly so. Some of the roads profiled in the report are tolled to the benefit of private companies (and Inglis and Baxandall helpfully offer alliterative advice for avoiding the “Potential Pitfalls of Privatization”), which one might think could restrain unwise use of funds since private companies may be more sensitive to revenue shortfalls. As a friend of mine once quipped, “If the bridge to nowhere had to be tolled it would never have been planned.”

Not so, as the case of the planned extension of California 241 shows. Optimistic projections of toll revenue have collapsed in the past decade, with traffic “36 percent lower than it would have been if pre-2006 trends had continued.” Thus a yawning gap between projections and revenues plagues the project. The case against an extension that remains on the books nonetheless is weak enough that even the “free-market-supporting Pacific Research Institute found ‘there is scant evidence that the viability of the 241, which is currently questionable, is improved with the extension…Spending money on plans to extend the 241…is not justifiable and should cease immediately.”

And so it goes, with project after project – from new tolled lanes in Colorado to a widening of I-94 through Detroit to a Parkway outside Savannah. Inglis and Baxandall, with the help of local advocates and analysts credited in the reports opening, have assembled a depressing list of zombie highway projects that ramble on in spite of outdated rationales and fiscal constraints. The report is heavily endnoted, evidence that they have done their homework in examining the gap between these projects and their flimsy justifications, sometimes down to a segment-by-segment assessment of growth projections.

They have several worthy policy recommendations, of course.  A couple of them stand out. One, plans should be revisited, for as the authors rightly note “Just because a project has been in the planning pipeline for several years does not mean it deserves to receive scarce taxpayer dollars.” Two, transportation forecasting models should be reevaluated. Currently they do not take into account potential discontinuities in traffic growth based on demographic and economic trends as well as policy priorities. That may have been okay in the 1950s but it’s unconscionable in an era when complexity and data analytics are sciences and computing power is at a historic high. A best-practice model for agencies is the performance-based process that the Metropolitan Transportation Commission uses for plotting out projects into quadrants based on specific performance criteria in its long-range planning. This has allowed it to identify outliers, which can then be cancelled or redesigned.

Their last recommendation is in the “boring but important” category, and can be especially helpful in killing zombie projects: Invest in more research and data. Inglis and Baxandall confirm in this report that, as Brandeis said, “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.” More and better data can help to lay wasteful projects like these to rest, at long last.