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Frontier Group at 25: Highway Boondoggles

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In the early 2010s, Frontier Group was in the midst of producing a series of reports documenting the rapidly changing needs of the American transportation system. One of our key findings was that the “Driving Boom” — a period of rapid, uninterrupted growth in vehicle travel — was ending, and that the future was uncertain.

Yet, as we looked around the country, we saw states continuing to build new highways and expand old ones like there was no tomorrow — even in places where population and vehicle travel had been stagnant or declining for decades.

In Road Overkill, released with WISPIRG Foundation in 2013, we found that because of a reliance on overly optimistic traffic projections, “traffic on many new roads is failing to materialize as originally projected by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.”

To many, even within the sustainable transportation community, the fight against highway expansion was seen mostly as a relic of the bad old days of “highway revolts” in American cities in the 1960s and 1970s. But one didn’t have to look hard to find similar fights happening across the country in the 2010s. In Dallas, city leaders were working to stop a new highway that would turn parkland along the Trinity River into asphalt. In Detroit, local groups were fighting an expansion of I-94 that threatened to destroy homes, businesses and historic buildings, while removing important community bridge connections. In Illinois, environmental groups were fighting a new expressway that would bring sprawling development south of Chicago.

The problems with these projects went even further. New road capacity causes more driving — and more driving means more air pollution and more emissions of greenhouse gases. All that new driving also means that congestion tends to return to expanded highways very quickly, so new projects designed to alleviate traffic were failing at the main thing they were supposed to do. And each new billion-dollar highway project meant a new squeeze on state transportation budgets, making it harder to invest in projects that would actually make it easier to get around.

In other words, these projects would have been destructive, environmentally damaging and costly at baseline. But they especially didn't make sense in an era of uncertainty about future growth in travel — especially in parts of the country that weren't growing very fast to begin with.

In 2014, we highlighted the most absurd highway expansion projects in the country in Highway Boondoggles: Wasted Money and America’s Transportation Future, written by Jeff Inglis of Frontier Group and Phineas Baxandall of the U.S. PIRG Education Fund. It covered 11 highway projects in total, with a total cost of $13 billion.

The report highlighted the proposed Trinity Parkway in Dallas, where officials wanted to put a toll road through parkland that the project's own documents said would make traffic worse. With the Illiana Expressway in Illinois, officials wanted to build a new highway to the middle of nowhere. In Detroit, the I-94 expansion was moving forward despite rapid population loss, financial woes, and traffic volumes that had remained unchanged for a decade.

The report struck a nerve. The Dallas Morning News covered our critique in the midst of that city’s fiery debate over the Trinity Parkway. The Chicago Tribune read our piece on the Illiana Expressway and was inspired to write their own editorial. Our friends at PIRGIM Education Fund brought together Detroit community organizations for a press conference at a historic music studio targeted for demolition to make way for I-94, and attracted the attention of the Detroit Free Press. The fast-growing transportation site Streetsblog ran each of our boondoggle stories in a serialized string of posts.

Following the release of that first report, it didn’t take long to find more boondoggles worthy of exposure, sometimes sent to us by residents of communities around the country fighting their own battles against destructive highways. Last year, for the release of our sixth boondoggles report, we created an interactive map for exploring all the projects we’ve covered since 2014: 58 projects in total, which — if built — would have cost $135 billion.

In the years since that first release, our Highway Boondoggles reports have helped give local and national exposure to the tireless and challenging work of groups like Allendale Strong in Shreveport, Louisiana, and Sunshine Citizens in Tampa Bay, Florida, engaged in fights around specific expansion projects.

Several of those projects have either been stopped entirely or significantly revised. The Illiana Expressway project in Illinois and the Trinity River project in Dallas have both been cancelled. The I-94 expansion in Detroit has been repeatedly revised and put on hold. In total, nine of the Highway Boondoggles that we have covered since we began the report series in 2014 have either been cancelled or put on hold.

In Highway Boondoggles 5, we took a look back at some of the communities that had successfully stopped highway projects. The stories we found were truly hopeful: By avoiding the destruction of highway construction, communities suddenly found themselves freer to start planning safer streets or new parks, or to start utilizing transportation funds for better uses than new asphalt.

At the same time, the boondoggles reports have helped shift the national conversation around highway expansion and been a resource for people fighting damaging highway expansion projects around the country. In 2019, for example, the Charleston Post and Courier used an editorial to propose a boondoggle of their own (which we then went ahead and covered in our 2020 report).

With the exception of Congress for a New Urbanism, whose “Freeways Without Futures” reports argue for the removal of some of America’s worst 20th century urban freeways, almost no one was critiquing wasteful highway projects at the national level back in 2014. Now, removal of bad freeways and a “fix-it first” approach to highways is a central thread in the federal transportation debate. This year, the U.S. Department of Transportation took the rare step of removing its support from the North Houston Highway Improvement Project, which we covered in 2019, citing community impacts. And the term “boondoggle” has become common parlance when discussing ill-conceived road projects.

Today, the work of stopping highway boondoggles is far from over. Even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, when states were drowning in debt, policymakers kept pushing their support for expensive new road projects, a sign that our addiction to building more and more roads runs deep. But our research has helped change the conversation, prevent some of the worst projects from moving forward, and — we hope — set the stage for changes in policy that will keep the next generation of boondoggles from being proposed in the first place.

Photo: The proposed North Houston Highway Improvement Project. Credit: Texas Department of Transportation.