Wisconsin ruling sheds light on transportation ‘boondoggles’

Construction of an interchange along U.S. Highway 41 in Wisconsin. (Photo via WisDOT)

Construction of an interchange along U.S. Highway 41 in Wisconsin. (Photo via WisDOT)

In states across the Midwest, advocates are challenging transportation administrators and elected officials over what they see as an ongoing, unnecessary build-out of highway infrastructure rooted in 20th-century planning.

They face an institutional obstacle in state transportation departments and builders, which often predict the need for such projects based on future growth, safety or economic development.

However, opponents say planning based on flawed future projections has implications not only on the use of taxpayer money, but also on air emissions and transportation energy use. And they question why governments still pursue these policies despite research showing, as a trend, Americans are driving less.

Last month in Wisconsin, those advocates scored a victory that they say could have implications nationwide by setting a legal precedent challenging highway expansion projects before they move forward.

The land-use advocacy group 1,000 Friends of Wisconsin successfully challenged the Wisconsin Department of Transportation in federal court over a planned 19-mile expansion project near Lake Winnebago that would have widened Highway 23 from two to four lanes. State legislators first pushed WisDOT for the expansion in the late 1990s, according to court records.

On May 22, Federal District Judge Lynn Adelman found “significant deficiencies” as WisDOT failed to explain how expanding the highway is justified based on projected traffic increases. The ruling vacated an administrative decision to move the project forward and blocked the state from using federal dollars to help pay for it.

1,000 Friends and other groups see the ruling as an affirmation of what they for years have suspected is a pattern of justifying expanded highway projects with inaccurate traffic projections.

“We basically have been alleging for many, many years that the traffic projections WisDOT used to justify construction of expanded highways were inaccurate and biased toward growth that hasn’t been realized,” said Steve Hiniker, executive director of 1,000 Friends of Wisconsin. “This turns out to be a very big deal because the primary justification in most of the traffic projects we see in the state is based on increased traffic.”

Hiniker said his organization has found a “complete mismatch” between state projections made about 10 years ago on more than 10 different projects. With billions of dollars at stake with more projects planned around the state, he believes it will be harder for the state to justify these types of project going forward.

“Since 2004, we’ve seen absolutely flat traffic growth. We think there’s been a fundamental shift in the way people move about,” Hiniker said. “If we don’t need to be building all of these projects, we’re saving billions in the state of Wisconsin and investing large parts of our transportation budget into the kinds of transportation that relies far less on excessive consumption of fossil fuels, which is where we think people are moving.”

Peg Schmitt, a spokeswoman for WisDOT, said the department is still reviewing the decision and declined to comment on what it plans to do next. The department could still make the case for building the project, observers note.

As a general practice, though, she said: “This department follows all required environmental study processes. These projects go through an extensive review process, including the environmental and economic impacts and extensive public involvement. Then we are required by the federal government to demonstrate a purpose and need for the project.”

Pat Doss, executive director of the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association, said his group is “disappointed” with the ruling.

“It basically means a lot of people won’t be working this summer that would have been,” he said. “This is the ongoing agenda of these extreme groups to try to undermine the process. It’s disappointing and it’s unfortunate. Now the project is on hold. We hope there isn’t some tragic consequences as a result, given this road is not very safe.”

But 1,000 Friends of Wisconsin isn’t stopping at Highway 23. Hiniker’s group is calling for a moratorium on new expansion projects that haven’t yet started, four of which total nearly $500 million in the next fiscal year’s budget, he said. In a report last year, the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group identified four major expansion projects, including Highway 23, that are unnecessary based on traffic projections and offered alternative ways to spend the several billion dollars targeted for them.

Phineas Baxandall, senior policy analyst with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, said Judge Adelman’s ruling was “really significant.”

“It’s long overdue that states get more than a rubber stamp on their justification for building expensive highway extensions,” he said. “This is an issue that is increasingly important as transportation dollars are ever more scarce and as highway expansion makes less and less long-term sense.”

‘Cultural bias’ and powerful lobbying

Advocates say Wisconsin transportation administrators are not alone in their push toward bigger road projects.

Sources interviewed for this story said it is ingrained among transportation engineers to, as Hiniker said, “widen highways, move cars as quickly as possible.” He called it a “cultural bias” among transportation departments and engineers toward auto-centric outcomes.

Groups like 1,000 Friends and the U.S. PIRG, which published a report last year on what it called “highway boondoggle” projects planned across the country, end up playing the watchdog role during the complex modeling stages of traffic projections.

Baxandall said such projects are a “very straightforward” way for states to spend money: Projects are proposed upwards of a decade or more before they’re actually built and “people in departments of transportation have made their career midwifing these big projects forward.”

Contributing to that mindset, he added, is that for over 50 years until about 2005, the number of vehicle miles traveled on a per capita basis nationwide steadily increased before seeing a decline since then.

“The downside of the bias toward highway construction is it’s a bias toward more oil consumption and more emissions. And the one thing we know about each new highway is that if we don’t have demand to justify the project, they will stimulate more driving,” Baxandall said.

This a concept known as “induced travel,” in which reducing congestion on a highway might cause some people to take extra car trips instead of alternatives.

“From an environmental point of view, the bias towards new highway expansion is very damaging,” Baxandall said.

On the political end, Hiniker and Baxandall also said the “highway lobby” — a vast, bipartisan network of builders, developers, consultants and fossil-fuel interests — can be a powerful force behind project funding.

Baxandall said this might explain why Gov. Scott Walker has promoted a major highway expansion project in Milwaukee despite facing a wave of local opposition to it and the financial burden to pay down debt it would put on the state for years to come.

“It gets to be so broad that you begin to see the picture of society defined by the movement of the automobile,” Hiniker said. “The reality is people are driving less, and no one wants to acknowledge that reality because there are too many with a vested interest that don’t want that.”

Doss, of the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association, disputes the driving trends. He said total vehicle miles traveled in Wisconsin are up this year, according to federal reports. Schmitt, of WisDOT, agrees, adding that vehicle registrations in Wisconsin also are increasing.

“Who’s falsifying data now?” Doss asked.

Still, those metrics are not the same as modeling what future growth will be.

Baxandall countered that in January — “after always overestimating what future driving would be” — the Federal Highway Administration “greatly downscaled the projections of future driving. That was a very significant change.”

The right kind of development?

Beyond the environmental and budgetary implications of highway expansion projects, local planners say a mindset rooted in 20th century planning contributes to urban decline.

Jason Segedy, director of the Akron Metropolitan Area Transportation Study in Ohio, recently wrote about the need for transportation planning to depend less on models. He said these projection methodologies are outdated, often because they end up inducing traffic in areas — particularly suburbs — that might not see population growth.

“As my career evolved, I’ve learned they are more of an art than a science,” he said. “Building a road can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. They can be good planning tools — and not that I believe they’re useless — but more and more they should be used in conjunction with a lot of other planning work.”

Historically, banking on road expansion to stimulate economic activity has been a bipartisan effort, Segedy added.

“In most states, there’s very much this political ideology that if you build new highway capacity you will improve the economy. More and more as I go through my career I really question that. It’s almost like a religious dogma. It will obviously, in most cases, lead to development along that road, but what kind? Are you taking it from somewhere else? Is it the kind we want or need?”

Ohioans for Transportation Choice is one organization taking on the advocacy role for alternative modes of transportation there. The U.S. PIRG identified a planned $331 million project in Cleveland as one of its “boondoggles.”

“At the national and state level, the political culture is still in that ‘let’s build a road and hope for the best’ mindset. I don’t think we really have the money or need to do that anymore, especially in the Rust Belt,” Segedy said. “We’re not really growing real fast and we have troubled urban areas, to say the least.”

‘Epic waste of money’

Controversial expansion projects have also surfaced in Michigan, Illinois and Indiana. Each also earned spots on the U.S. Public Interest Research Group’s 2014 “boondoggle” list.

Earlier this week, advocates — including the Environmental Law and Policy Center and Sierra Club — celebrated Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner’s call to remove the controversial Illiana Tollway project from the state’s multi-year plan and suspend existing contracts for the project.

The controversial 50-mile toll road in northeast Illinois and northwest Indiana would cost upwards of billions of dollars over time while more than $50 million has reportedly already been spent on planning.

In Michigan, plans to expand — as well as upgrade — a major transportation hub near Detroit has gained added scrutiny at a time when the state Legislature is at an impasse to come up with hundreds of millions of dollars more for dedicated road funding.

While no one disputes the need to make the highway and bridges safer along a nearly 7-mile section of I-94, advocates and vocal lawmakers are questioning the wisdom behind expanding sections of the highway, particularly in Detroit’s up-and-coming Midtown neighborhood.

State Rep. Jim Townsend, a Democrat from the Detroit suburb of Royal Oak, introduced legislation last session prohibiting the state from spending approximately $4 million to expand any of the existing highways as part of the project. The bill died in committee, but it also had a bipartisan slate of 17 co-sponsors from around the state.

“These freeway expansions are an epic waste of money,” Townsend said in a statement in October. “We should be investing in Michigan’s future by rebuilding the infrastructure we have, not throwing more money at failed transportation policies straight out of the 1960s. We know that doesn’t work.”

The state Department of Transportation says the area “needs to be reconstructed to improve safety, traffic flow, pavement and bridge condition, freight mobility, and local access to the freeway.”

The project has already received necessary approvals, but finding a steady funding source to pay it off, as well as modifications on the expansion side, are still ongoing.

Megan Owens, executive director of Detroit-based Transportation Riders United, said MDOT “heard the criticism from the public about making plans based on old data and they are updating traffic projections.”

The Southeast Michigan Coalition of Governments, which granted local approval to the project in 2013, is working with the state and the city of Detroit on potential changes to the scope of the project, particularly the number of lanes on service roads.

Carmine Palombo, SEMCOG’s deputy executive director, said the project is going to move forward despite concerns like those expressed by Rep. Townsend.

“The project is primarily to improve public safety and improve access to three international crossings. There’s a lot going on here that’s just not your normal, ‘We have a lot of cars, let’s widen the road,’ which is what critics want to categorize it as,” Palombo said. “We don’t do projects based on what legislators want, we do projects based on current situations and projecting traffic in the future based on where people are projected to live and where jobs will be. People that have a particular issue don’t see the full picture of things that are going on.”

But others argue Palombo doesn’t see the “full picture.”

In a 2013 op-ed about the project for the Huffington Post, Washtenaw County Commissioner Conan Smith — who also serves as executive director of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance — said SEMCOG’s “demand management” planning is “distinctly a 20th century solution.”

“It is a response that has resulted in ours being the only major metropolitan area in the nation without a comprehensive transit system to serve commuters,” Smith wrote. “It is a response that has facilitated massive outmigration from our core city, helping to exacerbate the concentration of poverty that underpins Detroit’s current economic struggles.

“It is a response that looks to the past rather than the future and offers our region, essentially, more of the same.”

1,000 Friends of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin and U.S. Public Interest Research Groups, the Environmental Law and Policy Center and the Sierra Club are members of RE-AMP, which publishes Midwest Energy News.

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