The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) recently launched a new series of reports and accompanying website that aim to make “The Case for Capacity” and explain why wider highways are needed across the country. The message from the trade group of state DOTs, which bills itself as “The Voice of Transportation,” is essentially a defense of the funding status quo. In the foreword to the first report, AASHTO Executive Director John Horsely writes that expanding highways “will be a principal part of what will be required” to meet future mobility needs.
AASHTO’s case for highway expansion comes a week after U.S. PIRG’s report, “Road Work Ahead” showed that drivers across the country are facing more than 90,000 miles of crumbling highways and more than 70,000 structurally deficient bridges, and called for a national fix-it-first policy.
How the federal government should prioritize highway spending has been the subject of an on-going debate within the transportation community since the completion of the interstate system in 1992. However, as the national infrastructure continues to age and the backlog of repairs continues to grow, it is increasingly difficult to justify road expansion getting such a large share of scarce resources. Between 2006 and 2008, 41% of federal funds spent on roadway projects went to new or expanded roads.
Here’s a closer look at some of AASHTO’s arguments:
AASHTO: ‘You have heard, “You can’t build your way out of congestion.” Is that really true? …According to the preliminary findings of [ongoing federal research,] “ALL forms of improvements—including capacity expansion” reduce congestion and improve reliability. The report finds, “All things being equal, more capacity (in relation to demand) means that the roadway is able to ‘absorb’ the effects of some events that would otherwise cause disruption.” ‘
Yes, “all things being equal” a wider road reduces congestion. But decades of research and experience have shown that things do not stay equal — road expansion is almost immediately followed by a steep increase in “induced traffic” as people make more and longer trips, and as development attracts more traffic. As traffic engineers say, “Trying to cure traffic congestion by adding more capacity is like trying to cure obesity by loosening your belt.” (A detailed literature review is available from the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, with additional explanations here, here, here, and here).
AASHTO: “Annual travel is expected to climb to nearly 4.5 trillion miles by 2050, even with aggressive strategies to cut the rate of growth to only one percent per year.”
Two facts for consideration: first, most of the data on driving trends in America show that vehicle miles traveled (VMT) has flatlined. As gas prices peaked in 2008, motorists drove 112 billion fewer miles during a 13 month period, between Nov 2007 to Nov 2008, the sharpest drop in vehicle miles ever recorded. The Federal Highway Administration’s traffic volume tracking data shows another decline in VMT this year. In fact, as TSTC board member Norman Garrick wrote in the Hartford Courant earlier this month, per capita VMT peaked in 2004 and per capita vehicle ownership peaked in 2001, long before the fuel price spike and current economic downturn.
Second, in order for lane miles to keep pace with AASHTO’s projected VMT growth from 2.9 trillion miles traveled in 2009 to 4.5 trillion miles traveled by 2050, you’d have to add 50% more lane-miles to the existing 8.4 million lane-miles of roads in the United States. That’s the equivalent of adding an additional 9,641 square miles of asphalt (parking lots and shoulders not included in this figure). That’s an area a little smaller than Maryland (9,774 square miles), slightly larger than Vermont (9,250) or New Hampshire (8,968), quite a bit larger than Massachusetts (7,850) or New Jersey (7,417), and almost exactly twice the size of Connecticut (4,845).
AASHTO: “Population increases are putting strains on existing transportation networks, and are increasing the need for new capacity.”
“To reduce current congestion and meet future needs, the AASHTO 2007 Future Options for Interstate Highways study found that the equivalent of 30,000 additional lane-miles should be added to the existing 85,000 lane-miles of urban Interstate. Additionally, another 40,000 lane-miles need to be added to the existing urban segments of the National Highway System.”
The population increases and congestion nightmares AASHTO refers to are taking place in the country’s metropolitan regions (or what the Regional Plan Association has coined Megaregions). These are exactly the kind of places where the cost of land acquisition is high, and where transit is the most viable and cost effective method to alleviate congestion — making road expansion a particularly poor investment.
These are also the places with some of the country’s most vulnerable and aging infrastructure. In 2008, 63% of major roadways in urban areas – where 80% of Americans live and work – were in less than good condition, according to the U.S. PIRG analysis.
AASHTO prescribes a 35% increase in urban interstate capacity. But widening interstates in our region would prove extremely costly in monetary and societal terms — and wouldn’t solve congestion either (see above).
Not All State DOTs Toeing Party Line
What are our region’s own DOT Commissioners saying when it comes to “the case for capacity”? Do they agree that highway expansion is the solution to congestion? AASHTO asked individual state DOTs to highlight their “urban interstate priorities” and “capacity needs,” and a closer look at this breakout reveals a more tempered message from the tri-state region:
- NYSDOT Acting Commissioner Stanley Gee says “aging infrastructure is the most pressing issue in need of attention in New York State” and that “operational improvements” and “transit capacity expansion” are New York’s main tools in addressing urban congestion. He highlights the Tappan Zee Bridge/I-287 corridor project to add bus rapid transit and a new commuter rail line to the Hudson Valley, as well as the Staten Island Expressway HOV lane expansion (which is a road widening).
- ConnDOT Commissioner Joseph Marie identifies the I-84 “Aetna Viaduct” project as the state’s Interstate priority, citing an “immediate need” to repair the highway deck and replace “deteriorated” structural steel and drainage elements. Capacity expansion is not mentioned anywhere on the fact sheet.
- NJDOT Commissioner James Simpson highlights the Route 295 and 42/I-76 Direct Connection project in Camden County – an interchange redesign which NJDOT justifies primarily on safety grounds, as the existing interchange has an accident rate “more than seven times the state average.” The project also includes structural repairs to five obsolete bridge structures and one structurally deficient bridge.
Compare these with the more straightforward expansion projects backed by the states where AASHTO’s current leadership comes from: AASHTO President and Mississippi DOT Director Larry “Butch” Brown writes that two highways in his state “have been expanded as much as possible” but MDOT must find a way to add additional lanes to both, AASHTO Vice President and Nevada DOT Director Susan Martinovich identifies a $700 million road widening in Las Vegas, and Utah DOT (AASHTO Secretary-Treasurer Carlos Braceras is UDOT’s deputy director) calls for both a multi-billion-dollar road widening and the construction of a new freeway.
AASHTO No Longer the Only “Voice of Transportation”
The transportation advocacy landscape has been transformed since AASHTO was founded in the early part of the 20th century. AASHTO is no longer the only “voice of transportation” providing policy guidance on how the federal government will spend possibly up to $500 billion in the next federal bill.
One look at the breadth of Transportation for America’s coalition will show that increasing number of Americans are aware of the profound impact transportation has on their work, their environment, their public health, their housing costs, and their quality of life. From the titans of Silicon Valley to public health experts, more and more groups are joining the call for a transformative bill that creates safer, cleaner, faster transportation choices for all Americans.
There is broad consensus that the current system is broke and broken. However, as Sean Berry at T4America points out, AASHTO has yet to explain to the American public how we built a system that functions so poorly for so many commuters and unfortunately offers only one solution – more of the same.
(Michelle Ernst and Steven Higashide contributed to this article.)
Image: From AASHTO “Unlocking Gridlock” report.