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As part of a pattern of costly highway expansion proposals stalling under increased scrutiny, a federal court in Wisconsin made history last week by forbidding the use of federal dollars to build a highway because no need had been demonstrated. The court put an abrupt halt to Governor Scott Walker’s plans to spend $146 million widening state Highway 23, holding the project ineligible for federal funding. The court cited inadequate evidence in state travel forecasts or recent traffic counts, adding doubt whether other highway expansion proposals around the country are really needed.
“It’s about time that states realize they can’t just spend federal dollars on costly highway expansions without demonstrating a need,” said Bruce Speight, WashPIRG (Washington Public Interest Research Group) Executive Director. “Wisconsin’s wasteful highway boondoggle didn’t stand up under scrutiny and we hope that the Puget Sound Gateway (SR 509 and SR 167) will face the same type of analysis”
Several state highway expansion projects around the U.S. have stalled under the weight of increased public attention recently:
- In Illinois, a similar lawsuit was filed last week challenging inflated driving forecasts used by the Illinois Department of Transportation to justify a proposed new expressway that has been heavily criticized as unnecessary. Yesterday Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner took the decisive step of announcing he will remove the highway from the state’s list of approved projects.
- In Dallas, the proposed Trinity Parkway concerns a six-lane tolled highway that was approved in a referendum, but details about large public subsidies and other problems have stalled the project in political debates over its merits.
- In Virginia, new private toll lanes proposed for Route 460, that the state has already spent about $250 million for, are also on hold. Increased public scrutiny in recent weeks has revealed problems with the contract, which required automatic payments to the private contractor above and beyond payments for specific project work, including for elements of the project that were known to be impossible to accomplish. Moreover, the $1.4 billion contract was not reviewed by the state’s main transportation oversight body, the Commonwealth Transportation Board, due to a quirk in the state’s Public-Private Transportation Act.
“The proposed highway expansion in Virginia is a terrific example of the type of situation that could have been avoided if there had been greater public scrutiny from the outset,” said Speight. “Had this process received a better public airing, perhaps some of these contract issues would have come to light sooner,” he added.
A report last year by the United States Public Interest Research Group identified 11 wasteful highway boondoggles across the nation, totaling at least $13 billion. Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct was among them.
The lack of justification for expanding Wisconsin’s Highway 23 was highlighted in a study by the Wisconsin PIRG Foundation in September 2014, titled, “Fork in the Road: Will Wisconsin Waste Money on Unneeded Highway Expansion or Invest in 21st Century Transportation Priorities?”
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