A massive remake of Interstate 45 from downtown Houston north to the Sam Houston Tollway that would be among the largest road projects in the region’s history also is one of the nation’s biggest highway boondoggles, according to an updated list released Tuesday.
The North Houston Highway Improvement Project — the umbrella term for the entire $7 billion-plus plan to remake Interstate 45 — is listed in the latest installment of unnecessary projects compiled by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and Frontier Group. Nine projects across the country made the 2019 list, the fifth annual report from the two groups that have argued for greater transit investment.
“We believe that to fix congestion problems we need to take cars off the road,” said Bay Scoggin, director of the TexPIRG Education Fund, a subset of the national group. “We could do far better investing $7 billion in public transit.”
Despite boasting one of the most extensive highway systems of any city in the country, Houston is planning to spend $7 billion on the “North Houston Highway Improvement Project.” According to a new report from TexPIRG Education Fund and Frontier Group, the project would expand I-45 through the middle of Houston, displacing homes and dividing communities.
“The fundamental law of road congestion is that if you build it, they will come,” said Bay Scoggin, TexPIRG Education Fund director. “More highways means more cars, so policymakers are living in a ‘Field of Dreams’ if they think this project will reduce congestion.”
“To improve Houston’s transportation system, we have to reduce our reliance on cars and highways,” Scoggin continued. “This project does the opposite, doubling down on a car-centric system that will lead to more traffic, pollution and sprawl.”
America’s aging roads and bridges need fixing. Our car-dependent transportation system is dangerous, harms our communities, and is the nation’s leading source of global warming pollution. And more than ever before, it is clear that America needs to invest in giving people healthier, more sustainable transportation options.
Yet year after year, state and local governments propose billions of dollars’ worth of new and expanded highways that often do little to reduce congestion or address real transportation challenges, while diverting scarce funding from infrastructure repairs and key transportation priorities. Highway Boondoggles 5 finds nine new budget-eating highway projects slated to cost a total of $25 billion that will harm communities and the environment, while likely failing to achieve meaningful transportation goals.
Highway expansion costs transportation agencies billions of dollars, driving them further into debt, while failing to address our long-term transportation challenges.
· Highway expansions are expensive and saddle states with debt.
o In 2012, the latest year for which data is available, federal, state and local governments spent $27.2 billion on highway expansion projects – sucking money away from road repair, transit, and other local needs.
o From 2008 to 2015, the highway debt of state transportation agencies nearly doubled, from $111 billion to $217 billion.
o New roadway is expensive to maintain, and represents a lasting financial burden. The average lane mile costs $24,000 per year to keep in a state of good repair.
· Highway expansion doesn’t solve congestion.
o Expanding a highway sets off a chain reaction of societal decisions that ultimately lead the highway to become congested again – often in only a short time. Since 1980, the nation has added more than 800,000 lane-miles of highway – paving more than 1,500 square miles, an area larger than the state of Rhode Island – and yet congestion today is worse than it was in the early 1980s.
· Highway expansion damages the environment and our communities.
o Highway expansion fuels additional driving that contributes to climate change. In 2017, transportation was the nation’s number one source of global warming pollution.
o Highway expansion can also cause irreparable harm to communities – forcing the relocation of homes and businesses, widening “dead zones” alongside highways, severing street connections for pedestrians and cars, and reducing the city’s base of taxable property.
The 2019 hurricane season officially gets underway tomorrow (June 1) with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicting between 4 and 8 hurricanes this year. On the heels of the devastating Hurricane Florence and Hurricane Michael in 2018, The Public Interest Network (which includes U.S. PIRG, Environment America, and state groups in often-impacted states such as Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Texas and Virginia) is sharing information to help contextualize the major environmental, health and consumer concerns posed by the hurricanes that will inevitably come this season.
When it comes to clean transportation, Texas got a “D” for underutilizing funds from Volkswagen’s nearly $3 billion settlement with federal authorities, according to a new report card from U.S. PIRG Education Fund and Environment America Research & Policy Center.
After Volkswagen was caught three years ago violating emissions standards in 590,000 cars marketed as “clean diesel,” the German automaker agreed to create an “Environmental Mitigation Trust” to be distributed across all 50 states (along with the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Texas got its grade because the funds were made available for dirty fuels like compressed fracked gas, with no extra decision criteria for zero emissions vehicles.
“The Volkswagen settlement gave Texas the opportunity to make huge strides in the essential transition to a cleaner and healthier electric transportation system,” Bay Scoggin, TexPIRG Director said. “It’s deeply disappointing that there’s a lot of good is coming out of how some states are spending this money -- but we are not going nearly far enough.”
Texas placed near the bottom of states overall. The report gave only 15 states a C or better for money-spending policies that increase access to electric vehicle charging and bolster electric school and transit bus fleets. Fourteen states, along with Puerto Rico, received a failing score.
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