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The federal government is providing states with $350 billion to spend on highways to alleviate traffic congestion.
The US has some of the widest highways in the world, but some states are planning on expanding them.
But economists have been saying the same thing since the 1960s: more roads often just leads to more traffic.
Some of the widest highways in the US have more than 20 lanes — and traffic is still getting worse.
Last year, the federal government enacted an infrastructure law, providing states with $350 billion for highways. Even though more lanes often just means more traffic, a number of states, including New York, Texas, Oregon, and Maryland, are considering highway widening projects to ease congestion.
But new highways will hurt the communities they cut through and the climate in general.
Here are some of the widest highways in America — and why widening them won’t solve the problem.
Since the 1960s, highways helped define America. In 2018, there were over a million miles of highway across the country, costing the federal government $105 billion annually.Oakland Mayor Lionel Wilson opens the John Williams Freeway, Interstate 980, in California in 1985.
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At times, highways that have been built have specifically harmed minority communities. For instance, in 1967 in Nashville, officials added a bend to Interstate 40 to ensure the highway went through a predominantly Black neighborhood rather than a white one.Tennessee State Rep. Harold Love, Jr. stands on an overpass over I-40, Monday, July, 19, 2021, near the site of his family’s former home on the north side of Nashville, Tennessee.
More recently, protestors have fought a $9 billion expansion of the I-35 in Austin, claiming it is discriminatory.Nighttime traffic rolls into downtown Austin along Interstate 35 in a time-exposure from the highway overpass.
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Since the 1960s, new highways have forced out about 1 million people from their homes. The majority of these residents have been Black.The Van Wyck Expressway while under construction in New York in 1950.
In 2008, the Katy Freeway was extended at a cost of around $2.8 billion. But instead of helping with congestion, traffic actually increased substantially from 2011 to 2014 as more vehicles used the additional lanes.Traffic moves along Interstate 10 near downtown Houston, April 30, 2020.
As early as the 1960s, economists were saying more roads only meant more cars — widening highways doesn’t work. It’s the theory of “induced demand,” which basically means congestion rises to meet new capacity.Only the sign of the Colonial Manor Motel remains as crews made room for construction of the Interstate 70 expansion project on July 24, 2018 in Denver, Colorado.
But new highways kept getting built. Between 1993 and 2017, roads increased by 42% in the country’s largest 100 cities, while population growth was only 32%. Traffic delays still rose by 144%.Automobile traffic jams Route 93 South, Wednesday, July 14, 2021, in Boston.
But sometimes states don’t have a choice. For instance, in Texas, the state constitution requires funding to be used on highways before other forms of transport.A $301 million highway expansion in Irving, Texas due to be completed by the end of 2023.
Right now, America could be at a crossroads. Last year, the federal government enacted an infrastructure law to provide states with $350 billion to be used for highways.The 405 Freeway in California during rush hour traffic.
Some environmental organizations were dismayed by the law. This was because, of the $1.3 trillion put aside for transport, only 20% was for transit while 80% went to highways.Stephanie Pollack, deputy administrator of the Federal Highway Administration, in 2019.
But President Biden’s administration showed a gentle indication for its preferred spending.
Stephanie Pollack, deputy administrator of the Federal Highway Administration, sent a memo to her staff telling them to encourage governments to first look at fixing current roads before laying new ones.
Even so, some states including Oregon, Maryland, Texas, and New York are pushing forward with the status quo. They’re looking to re-widen highways, including the Brooklyn Queens Expressway.Vehicles drive along the Brooklyn Queens Expressway in 2021.
Wider highways mean more vehicles and more pollution. Across the US, transportation is already responsible for 27% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.Construction on the I-66 in Virginia in 2021.
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For comparison, the agricultural industry is responsible for 11% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Some states and cities are looking at alternatives. In Los Angeles, an expansion to Interstate 710 was abandoned in 2022 after the chief planning officer noted the city didn’t see “widening as a strategy” for the city.Traffic moves along the 710 freeway in this view looking north from the Willow Street overpass.
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Considering Los Angeles is known for its congested highways, this was a big deal.
The decision was made after another recently completed project in Los Angeles only temporarily eased traffic before it increased again.
In Portland, young climate activists have been fighting against a $1.2 billion plan to widen the I-5 in a section which runs through a neighbourhood called Albina, a historically Black neighborhood.Heavy traffic in Portland on the I-5.
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Its air quality is already so bad local scientists have recommended that local school children don’t play outside.
So, what’s the answer? Matt Turner, an economics professor at Brown University, noted if you want more cars on the road, add more lanes. But that’s not what most people want.An aerial picture taken on August 26, 2021, shows trucks, cars, and other vehicles sitting in traffic due to road construction on Interstate 5 as they transit through the Tejon Pass from the Grapevine in Kern County, California.
On the contrary, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said: “Connecting people more efficiently and affordably to where they need to go is a lot more complicated than just always having more concrete and asphalt out there.”Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg.
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Buttigieg has publicly backed prioritizing fixing existing highways over building new ones.
While in Colorado adopted a new transport regulation in 2021 that directs transport planners toward projects designed to lower pollution, like cycle lanes and more bus routes.A cyclist shares dangerous cycling route between West 32nd Avenue from Applewood to Golden, which has been described as a Bicyclist’s Freeway because it is the primary route for cyclists from Denver to prime rides in the Golden area.
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Mass transport is part of the answer — and it works, too. When Seattle focused on buses and light rail from 2010 to 2017, the increased use of public transport meant traffic decreased, even as the city grew by more than 100,000 people.Contactless payment with ORCA card (One Regional Card For All), to access all public transportation, Seattle, Washington.
But despite the advantages, it also comes down to money, Ben Holland, an urban design and land use expert at clean energy non-profit RMI, told The Guardian. Right now, most roads are toll-free and are government subsidized.Traffic going eastbound on the Pennsylvania Turnpike proceeds through the electronic toll booths in Cranberry Township, Pa., on Aug. 30, 2021.
While there’s no easy answer, states and the federal government need to think creatively about how roads and public transport are paid for. One option is a congestion charge — charging people for traveling at peak times.Traffic backs up at the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge toll plaza on August 24, 2022 in Oakland, California.
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The charge would aim at prompting people to travel at different times and only those who needed to travel at peak times would pay the fee meaning traffic would be eased and wider motorways wouldn’t be necessary.
Other options include more express bus lanes, cycle lanes, walking bridges, and light rail. Basically, people need affordable options to get them out of cars and off the roads.A light rail station on March 12, 2020 in Seattle, Washington.
“This is a make-or-break moment,” Holland told The Guardian. “How the states use those highway funds will basically determine whether we meet our transportation emissions goals.”Interstate 278 passes over the New Jersey Turnpike on its way to the Goethals Bridge on October 20, 2022, in Elizabeth, New Jersey.