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Highway expansion a waste of money

Last week, a piece of concrete smashed onto a woman's car as she drove underneath a structurally deficient bridge in Prince George's County. There are about 80 structurally deficient bridges in Maryland maintained by the state and more than 300 if we include those operated by the counties. You'd think fixing them would be the top priority for state highway funds. But the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) too often invests taxpayer money on extravagant highway expansion projects. The need for many of these new highway lanes and upgrades is often highly questionable, but there's no question that they divert funds from much-needed repairs on bridges and roads across the state.

A case in point is the $646 million state proposal to add six expressway-style interchanges to Indian Head Highway, Route 210, in the same Prince George's County. If there were unlimited transportation dollars to spend, this might not be a problem, but why should turning this road into an expressway be a bigger priority than fixing the roads and bridges we already have?

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Worse still, like many highway expansion plans, the Route 210 project is based on old, obsolete assumptions of an endless driving boom that are no longer reality. In fact, the forecasts of future traffic that would need to be accommodated near Indian Head Highway were made back in 2000 and are contradicted by the last decade of far slower driving growth in Maryland and across the country. In one location on Route 210, just south of its interchange between Route 414 and the Capital Beltway, where traffic was expected to triple between 2000 and 2010, the actual number of cars recorded by 2013 had fallen below 2002 levels, according to traffic volume maps and the traffic monitoring system of the Maryland Department of Transportation.

The planned Route 210 interchanges are also likely to run into the same problems that we've seen from other attempts to expand highways as a way to reduce congestion. They will attract additional drivers and by doing that push more traffic volume into choke-points on and off the roadway, which will become more prone to congestion.

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Instead of throwing away tax dollars on obsolete projects, MDOT should reappraise whether these highway megaprojects really are necessary. They should take a cue from the Federal Highway Administration's (FHWA) recent enlightenment. FHWA has finally acknowledged the nine-year decline in automobiles on the road, after having projected year-on-year increases and inaccurately claiming that Americans would likely begin a new era of increased driving. Even with low gas prices expected to tilt toward more driving this year, the long-term trend is still one of slower driving growth.

This matters for how we prioritize our transportation dollars. The average American today drives no more than he or she did in 1998 and the overall miles driven in 2013 — the most recent year for which data is fully available — were down approximately 1.5 percent from the peak level of eight years prior. While 1.5 percent doesn't sound like a big difference, it's billions fewer miles of driving here in Maryland.

The FHWA's new driving forecast suggests that driving per person will essentially remain flat. By recognizing changing travel behavior and the preferences of a rising millennial generation, Maryland can avoid billions in unnecessary spending for additional highway capacity.

MDOT is not unaware of the decline in driving. In an updated long range transportation plan through the year 2030 released last year, the department admitted that total vehicle miles traveled will not increase annually and have actually dropped in recent years. However, that change is not reflected in the department's current spending priorities, which continue to include unnecessary highway expansions like the Route 210 proposal. The recent bridge incident in Prince George's County should push MDOT to reconsider its priorities.

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Maryland's new governor can rein in wasteful highway spending. In his inaugural address Gov. Larry Hogan championed fiscal responsibility as the first of his common-sense principles that will guide his administration. He urged that we need to "run our state government more efficiently and more cost effectively." He can begin by rejecting the state proposal to expand Indian Head Highway. He should take this opportunity to fix crumbling bridges first instead of aimlessly expanding highways.

If we don't maintain what we already have, Maryland risks a collapsing infrastructure and an empty pocket book.

Matthew Wellington is a campaign organizer for Maryland PIRG; his email is matt@marylandpirg.org.

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