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Boondoggles: Love ’Em, Hate ’Em, or Hide From ’Em

Our Highway Boondoggles report, released September 18, has generated quite a bit of discussion, on a broad spectrum from love to hate, for the projects we critiqued.

The Chicago Tribune used the release of the report as occasion to issue a powerful editorial condemning the proposed Illiana Expressway, which was one of the projects we highlighted. A key vote on whether to continue with the project is due next week.

Meanwhile, Phoenix’s Arizona Republic took umbrage that we termed the Interstate 11 project in Arizona and Nevada a “boondoggle,” pointing to the desert highway’s potential for economic development (i.e., more truck traffic and sprawl) as “opportunity knocking.” That perspective was disputed not just by an opinion piece published in response from Arizona PIRG Education Fund, but also a letter to the editor from the conservative Goldwater Institute

And in Dallas, backers of the Trinity Parkway, a six-lane highway built within an area designed to contain flooding, have had precious little to say since a Dallas Morning News story based on our the report pointed out that the $1.5 billion toll road would do very little to solve congestion. The local chamber of commerce issued a pretty bland statement that lumped the parkway in with other major developments along the Trinity River (focusing on outdoor recreation and environmental revitalization), saying they are connected, even though they appear to work at cross-purposes.

But other officials – including those at the very forefront of the effort to push the toll road through – have kept their mouths firmly shut. As DMN reporter Brandon Formby wrote on October 2:

North Central Texas Council of Governments transportation director Michael Morris, perhaps the project’s most influential cheerleader, hasn’t been available to discuss the project for two weeks. But an agency spokeswoman said late Thursday that he was not dodging the issue. Dallas City Council member Vonciel Jones Hill, a proponent who chairs the Transportation and Trinity Project Committee, hasn’t returned phone calls. . . .Dallas City Council member Scott Griggs, who opposes the project, had a theory for the persistent quiet.“I imagine they’re trying to come up with a new reason for it,” he said.We hope they'll speak up soon. The kind of discussion provoked by our report is sorely needed at a time when:

We need to begin treating highway construction spending not as a necessity but rather as a competing interest that must be evaluated and compared with other priorities. (Not just transit and bicycle-pedestrian projects. Road repair needs are huge and growing.)

What the Republic’s editorial board missed – and folks in places like Chicago and Dallas increasingly understand – is that massive highway construction projects come with both trade-offs that reduce their value to communities and with opportunity costs. Even if the I-11 project has benefits (and that’s questionable), and even if those benefits exceed the cost, proceeding with the project is still a bad idea if it sucks up resources that could be used on more productive investments, or if our assessment of the potential benefits is based on assumptions about the future that have a high likelihood of not coming to pass.

Deron Lovaas at the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a thoughtful blog post, echoed our call for setting priorities in transportation spending and wrote about the problems of doing 1950s-style linear transportation forecasting “in an era when complexity and data analytics are sciences and computing power is at a historic high.”

Perhaps the most exciting thing, though, about the reaction to the boondoggles report is the degree to which it has spawned honest, largely non-ideological dialogue, about our transportation priorities and needs for the future. These are the kinds of conversations we need if America is going to arrive at a transportation policy that truly serves the nation’s best interests in the long run.