State DOTs’ Prescription for American Cities: More Highways

Cross_Bronx_Expressway.jpgAASHTO’s new report recommends that America’s urban transportation policy repeat the mistakes of the past. Photo of the Cross-Bronx Expressway: Tool Ake via Flickr

The umbrella group for America’s state DOTs, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, has started a major new push for, you guessed it, more highways. The new campaign argues for highway expansion in urban areas as if fifty years of similar policies hadn’t led to a dead end of sprawl, pollution, and oil dependence.

As described in an important post on Mobilizing the Region by Ya-Ting Liu of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, AASHTO has released a series of reports and a new website making "the case for capacity." The website is filled with friendly explanations of "what’s so great about an interstate" and promises that "urban interstates are the new ‘Main Street.’" As unbelievable as those claims must be to anyone living next door to the Bruckner Expressway or parked in traffic on the Cross-Bronx, AASHTO’s stated intention to massively expand the urban highway system is all too real.

AASHTO argues that because America’s population growth over the following decades will be concentrated in urban areas, state DOTs need to help
more and more city dwellers get around. Their prescription? 30,000 more lane-miles of urban interstate. That’s an increase of more than 40 percent over the 85,000 urban lane-miles that already exist. AASHTO also wants to build another 40,000 lane-miles to the non-interstate federal highways in urban areas. If Robert Moses were alive today, he’d probably arrive at the same policy response.

As Liu writes at MTR, more highways are not the answer to America’s urban transportation needs.

If all AASHTO’s projected growth in VMT were matched with new road capacity, you’d have to add 9,641 square miles of new lanes: an area the size of Maryland. That’s not even including the space needed for parking spaces or shoulders. And it doesn’t account for induced demand: Before long, those new highway lanes will just attract new drivers, as momentarily less-congested roads lead more people to organize their lives around car commuting, canceling out any congestion benefits new road capacity might offer.

Keep in mind that those 9,641 square miles would be located in urban areas — where transit expansion and smart growth are most feasible. AASHTO says it supports doubling transit ridership by 2030. But the
status-quo funding solution they’re advocating will continue to siphon
federal dollars into infrastructure that enables sprawl, not transit
and walkable development.

In addition, every dollar spent on road expansion comes at the expense of repairs. According to a new study by U.S. PIRG, 63 percent of major urban roadways were in less than good condition.

Streetsblog spoke to AASHTO director John Horsley about his group’s new report, and he gave a somewhat more moderate argument for expanding highways. Stay tuned for details from the conversation.

  • Larry Littlefield

    That’s nuts. We don’t have the money to maintain what we already have.

  • brent

    Asking people in a highway planning department how many new highways they think we need is a conflict of interest.

  • brent


  • What? I thought many cities around the country were working to either tear down or mitigate the effects of urban freeways built back in the day! Don’t they realize they’re just creating more work for future, more progressive generations?

  • Gary

    One lens to view this through is that of an experience like the Big Dig/Central Artery in Boston.

    I would love to see a highway project that replaced the Gowanus Expressway and portions of the BQE with tunnels. This would open up significant amounts of surface space for better uses, remove blighting elevated highways, allow for stitching old neighborhhods back together, and alleviate serious environmental impacts (exhaust, noise).

    And of course, dedicate space to transit facilities in the process, on the surface and in the tunnels.

    My preference is for greater funding share for transit, especially rapid transit and intercity (true) HSR. But let’s consider the fact that highway spending CAN be done in a way to correct the mistakes of the past.

    Specific to the Big Dig – i think a Brooklyn project would be simpler to implement, and I think we could execute it better given the lessons learned. But if you’ve experienced the “before” and “after” there’s no arguing that the Boston cityscape hasn’t improved dramatically.

  • I think somebody missed a bit of a memo from Ray there in Washington. To be fair though they are there to advocate for highways, so at least they are being consistent!!

    one would think that with the mountain of evidence against expansion and construction of highways on all sorts of fronts, that more would have gotten the memo by now… But I don’t think the mass effects of highways are actually understood by people outside the planning field. The ideas are relativity complex and thus not sound bite worthy….

  • Joy_inPA

    Urban freeways also destroy homes and neighborhoods, always of the poorest people and those with no clout, who are also the least capable of relocating successfully. Classism in concrete.

    And no, these neighborhoods cannot be “stitched” back together. Unless we’re talking about gentrifying with lots and lots of parking.

  • John, they may be there to advocate for highways, but they’re really supposed to be advocating for the best interest of the residents of their states…

    Gary, what if we tore down the Gowanus and didn’t build a tunnel?

  • More highways? Where did they discover oil fields that will last more than 50 years? Have they found a way to cut the price of car insurance by half? Will cars now be maintenance free for a decade or two? Where are they going to put all the parking lots needed? Will all cars have treadmills to fight obesity? Can they build the highways through the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials property instead, for once please?

  • Emily Litella

    People, who is it that is shoveling gobs of cash into political campaigns? The usual sprawlistas. They know their game is over out in the sticks so they are trying to muscle in where growth is expected. And as for the State DOTs, they are simply answering to their masters. Consultants (former public servants) make money on mega-projects, but not much on bike and ped infrastructure.

  • Tom

    Ask a surgeon if you need surgery. You know the answer before you ask the question. Ask a highway planner if you need highways … ditto.

  • I just emailed my local State DOT, state reps, and governor asking them to make sure their/our voice is heard within AASHTO. AASHTO is important and it’s important to keep on pushing it to get beyond highways. It’s not going anywhere and things like putting bikes into the MUTCD are great… we just need to make sure we move them beyond building new lane miles.

  • James Fujita

    The trouble with AASHTO is there are too many states in “flyover country” where rail is limited to Amtrak, commuter rail is limited or non-existant and light rail is a distant dream. Think of places like Montana, the Dakotas, Nebraska, most of Kansas, Oklahoma, Idaho.

    The president of the group is from Mississippi, the VP is Nevada and the Sec-Treas. is Utah. Now, Utah has light rail and a commuter train, but beyond Salt Lake, nothing. Vegas has a monorail for what that’s worth.

  • Gary, remember that the original Big Dig’s cost overruns happened in Boston, a city whose tunneling costs are much lower than New York’s. A Brooklyn project would have a per-km cost that would make Second Avenue Subway and East Side Access look like picnic. (If I’m not mistaken, road tunnels cost about twice as much as subway tunnels – I think that’s the ratio in Paris. Now multiply Paris road tunnel costs by New York’s corruption factor… you’d get something like $3 billion per kilometer.)

  • Urban Reason


  • Massive highway construction at the expense of transit has subsidized sprawl to the tune of billions of dollars and enforced racial and economic inequities for decades. Liu is right — more highways are definitely not the answer. At the Transportation Equity Network, we believe the answer is answer is meaningful, sustained investment in mass transit and transit-oriented development. Rather than expending even more resources on more roads, let’s transfer that energy to maintaining and improving America’s public transportation system. Transit construction also creates twice as many jobs as highway construction, which is a winning argument even when we’re not facing a national economic crisis.


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