Do More Highway Lanes Spark Joy?

It seems straightforward that we shouldn’t build infrastructure that will make us miserable. But that’s just what many currently proposed highway projects will do, by creating more traffic and more pollution, and destroying places where we live, work, and play.

Gideon Weissman

Former Policy Analyst, Frontier Group

In a recent op-ed for The Hill, Abe Scarr from our partner organization Illinois PIRG made a recommendation for policymakers considering infrastructure investments: channel organizing consultant Marie Kondo and ask whether each new piece of infrastructure will “spark joy.”

That piece of advice was often on my mind as I co-wrote the fifth and latest edition of our Highway Boondoggles report series, released today with U.S. PIRG Education Fund. Most of the new boondoggles are based on the misguided and thoroughly debunked notion that expanding highway capacity results in less traffic congestion. And while each new project will fail to deliver on that basic premise, each one also comes with side effects that spark anything but joy.

Take, for example, the North Houston Highway Improvement Project, a $7 billion project to widen and rebuild already-massive highways through the city’s urban core. What will Houston residents get for that gargantuan investment of public resources? According to state documents, they’ll see thousands of homes bulldozed, giant new concrete barriers raised between communities, and “displacements of businesses that are significant sources of sales tax revenue.” Very low on the joy scale.

Or look at the Complete 540 project in North Carolina, a proposal for a new six-lane highway through a rural and picturesque area south of Raleigh. As the project paves over wetlands, it will put threatened species of freshwater mussels at risk. To make up for it, the state will spend $5 million over five years to grow the mussels in a lab. Not particularly joyful.

And in Portland, Oregon, the state is looking to create miles of new highway pavement through the city’s Rose Quarter. Portland is a city that has been making commitments left and right to build a healthier and more sustainable transportation system, and the new highway project is running into fierce opposition from groups like Portland’s official walking and biking advisory committees. If you think that a $500 million public investment in a city should make the people of that city happy, this is not the project for you.

But the new Boondoggles report is not totally joyless. As Kondo has put it, “only by letting go of items, one by one, can you truly face your past and begin to create your future.” And so it is with boondoggles. This current edition includes a look back at projects covered in previous years. And those communities that let go of their commitment to highway expansion have taken big steps in a different and far more hopeful direction.

In Dallas, for example, a proposed new highway through the Trinity River corridor had been under discussion for years. The city eventually concluded that the expense and disruption created by the road weren’t worth it – especially given the fact that the new road wouldn’t make a dent in congestion. Since saying no to the parkway, plans for urban parks and restored natural wetlands have been given new life.

In Tampa, a similar community effort stopped a proposal for new toll lanes through the community of Tampa Heights. Just a few years ago, the community was staring at the possibility of watching historic homes, community centers, a new water park and other treasures fall to the bulldozer. But with highway plans discarded, Tampa Heights is thriving with new bars and restaurants, and more pedestrians and bicyclists than ever. The sense of possibility is so great that the community is even beginning to envision what it would be like to tear down the existing highway.

It seems axiomatic that we shouldn’t build infrastructure that will make us miserable, especially when that infrastructure will lock us into long-term spending on a future we may not even want.  Communities with boondoggle projects planned have their work cut out for them, but they don’t have to resign themselves to more pavement and more cars. They can use these opportunities to demand and then create a landscape that protects communities and creates new possibilities for our future.


Gideon Weissman

Former Policy Analyst, Frontier Group