The Opportunity Costs of Highway Expansion

In case you haven’t heard, gas tax revenues aren’t what they used to be. In this kind of fiscally-constrained environment, every dollar spent on big, expensive transportation projects is a dollar that won’t be spent on smaller but smarter local transportation needs. Yet around the country, mega-highway plans conceived in a different era continue to march forward as if nothing has changed.

This is the $3 billion bridge widening project planned for metro Portland. Imagine how far that money would go if just a fraction was put toward improving cycling and transit. Image: Transport Politic

Writing about Portland’s Columbia River Crossing project, a $3 billion highway boondoggle that would be jointly funded by the states of Oregon and Washington, Evan Manvel at the Cascade Bicycle Club considers what the region would give up if this project moves forward:

The biggest reason Cascade opposes the CRC is its opportunity cost: every one of the billions of dollars we spend on this boondoggle can’t be spent on Washingtonians’ higher transportation priorities — providing safe transportation choices and maintaining the roads and trails we already have.

As we work hard to find a few million dollars to fund dozens of projects across Washington to make it safe for kids and families to bike, the state is hoping to spend billions on this single poorly-designed, non-functional highway expansion.

One serious problem: the CRC’s hand-picked Independent Review Panel found the project’s value is questionable unless Oregon spends billions of more dollars in addition to the billions on this project, and there is no plan for that funding, amid a huge maintenance backlog. The Review Panel concluded: “Questions about the reasonableness of investment in the CRC bridge because unresolved issues remain to the south… threaten the viability of the project.”

This is the same question that livable streets advocates in every community should be asking about the huge highway projects on the books in their state. It’s crazy how little highway a hundred million dollars will actually buy you these days.

Elsewhere on the Network today: The State Smart Transportation Initiative reports that freight rail traffic is increasing. The Hard Drive blog says that the cars-vs-bikes controversy is old, unexciting news in Portland. And Green Caltrain projects that a portion of the money the state of California will derive from its cap-and-trade program will likely be used to support active transportation.