From ‘The Voice of Transportation,’ A Call For More of the Same

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.)

11 Comments on "From ‘The Voice of Transportation,’ A Call For More of the Same"

  1. “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.”

    NY highways are either 3 or 2 lanes in each direction. They are not super-wide by any stretch and have not been repeatedly widened, or widened at all within the lifetime of this article’s author. Addings lanes here and there would be useful, as would adding parallel relief routes. Works for transit (e.g., second avenue subway as areliever to the Lex line). NY needs more lanes, we’ve gone 50 years without capacity expansion, and the region has seized up.

  2. No. We have a lot of road capacity currently that isn’t managed properly. Take the area north of the city as an example: you have the Saw Mill and Sprain Parkways and the NY State Thruway. The Thruway has a $1.25 toll and is half empty most mornings, while the parkways are free and are packed as a result. Pricing these roads properly is low hanging fruit that could make a real difference.

    There is no way to widen the majority of parkways and highways in the NY Metro area. Most of them don’t even have breakdown lanes. They have no excess right of way and the takings cost to expand the ROWs would be astronomical. Not happening. Everything within 40 miles of the city is completely built out and there is no chance that new roadways will be built in the foreseeable future. It’s all about managing what we have now and getting people out of cars to the greatest extent possible.

  3. Douglas Willinger | May 18, 2010 at 1:14 pm |

    There are plenty of areas where spot widening would help and the land is there, such as the southbound Clear view ramp to the eastbound GCP; extending the 4th northbound lane of I-95 past the Pelham Parkway to CoOp City, and the northbound I-95 to I-87 roadway with a cantilever for the service road over the widened highway.

    Alas, new urbainism is all ‘lock-step’ and without independent thought.

  4. Douglas, how will those projects be paid for? Capacity expansion must take a backseat to repairing our current infrastructure. With roads in our region already crumbling, why should we build more infrastructure to maintain when we can’t maintain what we already have?

  5. Chris-

    Tell your handlers that is a TOTAL cop out, dating back to at least the time of the pandering to the entitues of sloppy book-keeping with the unjustified attacks on Westway.

    True progressives would go after the obscene spending on the military, domestic surveillance, and the unconstitutional drug war (have you seen the percentages of court time spent on these illegal prosecutions?)

    Why after all do the powers that be oppose raising the fuel tax while favoring domestic tracking instead?

    Why does the new report neglect the idea of tolling for new facilities? For example the much needed I-287 tunnel to Long Island that TSTC (AFIAK) has not even written about, despite calling itself a transportation group. Would not it be more useful to say, increase the tunnel bore to include room for rail?

    Its part of a very bad trend that lock-step organizations as TSTC enable.

  6. Erin Pascale | May 20, 2010 at 3:02 pm |

    In the face of the catastrophic oil spill that poses an imminent threat to the entire Gulf Coast region and perhaps beyond, I find it unconscionable that any group or individuals would be advocating for any activities that would further increase our need for oil. Yes, we have some very serious transportation problems, but expanding highways that will lead directly to more cars and more oil consumption is short-sighted and immoral, and in this context, self-serving as well.

    Instead of holding on to the threads of a dying cultural norm, AASHTO would be better served to catch the wave of the sustainability mega trend and position themselves to serve the next generation of transportation infrastructure developments.

  7. True progressives also look beyond petro-mercantilism at bio fuels, such as Hemp and Algae, and of course better in conjunction with electric hybrid technology.

    They also look at addressing the cancellations that place greater percentage of the burden upon the CBE.

  8. Doug, note that even this boosterish program doesn’t look at hemp, and points out that algae is a long shot.

    Calling everyone you disagree with “lock-step and without independent thought” is (a) wrong and (b) not going to make anyone sympathetic to your arguments.

  9. While AASHTO does have a highway division interested in building roads and bridges, they also have very strong staffing on public transit, freight rail and intercity passenger rail. AASHTO is not quite the whipping post / poster boy for road building that it might have been 10 years ago. They represent State Highway and Transporation officials in all modes and their main objective is bigger and bigger pots of money for transportation.

  10. The ‘mainstream’ groups apparently have a bias against Hemp, and they say little about algae despite its benefits of being grown in multilayer in water.

    Then again, these groups apparently also have a bias in the subversion of civil liberties and human rights lest they ask why the U.S. spends relatively so little upon infrastructure, including non highway, and urban highway, and so much upon its criminal wars.

    Capt’ Imagine some dissent within this sort of transportation movement at least as much as say amongst drug policy reformers.

    That is only one example. Another is the community favoring placing 10,000 people next to a major highway that is built in a divisive 1940s configuration, and all of the groups march in lock step arrangement, passing off a single meeting that was NOT announced to the users as democracy?

    Or how about the dynamics in places as Alexandria Virginia?

    There is definitely too much of this unanimous and without debate nonsense within our government, seen here and in so many other rash decisions both against highways and rail.

    Its a problem with both the so called ‘left’ and the so called ‘right.’

  11. Ron McLinden | June 5, 2010 at 3:17 pm |

    Reduce transportation demand. Along with fix-it-first and more transit and pricing strategies and everything else, the nation needs to get serious about reducing the need to drive. There is a crying need for non-transportation organizations to accelerate their efforts to bring about cultural change, to make the case that Americans can live prosperous and fulfilling lives while driving fewer vehicle miles and consuming fewer ton-miles of stuff.

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