Highway Boondoggles: Round 2

Jeff Inglis

Policy Analyst

Tony Dutzik contributed to this blog post.

In December 2015, Congress passed the first long-term transportation funding bill in more than 10 years. Now, attention turns to the states to see how the next quarter-trillion dollars of federal transportation funding – much of it provided through another in a series of general fund bailouts of the Highway Trust Fund – will be spent.

If history is any guide, the answer is likely to be “unwisely.” Our new report, Highway Boondoggles 2, reviews 12 dubious, destructive or just plain unneeded highway expansion projects proposed in states across the country that are projected to cost at least $24 billion to build.

But wait, you may ask, aren’t our roads and bridges supposed to be crumbling and in dire need of repair? Aren’t cities across the country clawing at each other for limited federal funds for transit, sidewalks and bikeways? Isn’t the purchasing power of the gas tax dwindling – casting long-term uncertainty over our ability to maintain whatever we build today over the long haul?

The answers to those questions are yes, yes, and yes. Yet, changing transportation needs and funding uncertainty have done little to slow the highway construction machine, which continues to chug along across the country – in some cases, diverting funds away from maintenance of existing roads and bridges.

The 12 projects described in this report are just a sample of many similar, poorly justified and costly highway projects moving forward across the United States – projects that often proceed with only a tiny fraction of the scrutiny provided to transit projects or Amtrak, despite their vast expense.

Not that there haven’t been some signs of progress. In 2014, our original Highway Boondoggles report highlighted 11 wasteful highway construction or expansion projects slated to cost at least $13 billion. A few of those projects have been stalled or canceled, due at least in part to stepped-up scrutiny of the projects by the public, the media and, in some cases, the courts. Sunshine, it is said, is the best disinfectant, and exposing these projects to the light of day often reveals the paper-thin rationales, fuzzy math, and limited public benefits used to justify these massive investments.

The need for scrutiny is greater now than ever. The ever-continuing quest to expand highways has begun to consume resources previously dedicated to other public needs, as general fund revenue and new taxes on the public at large are increasingly common sources of highway funding around the country. It was one thing when gas taxes on driving paid more of the tab for highway construction, but with all of us now on the hook for a bigger share of the costs, we all should have a say in the outcome.

The 12 projects highlighted in this report illustrate a problem but also represent an opportunity – the money that can be saved by cutting or downsizing these projects and others like them is more than enough to make a down payment on America’s 21st century transportation needs.


Jeff Inglis

Policy Analyst