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How the Lure of “Free Money” Leads to Highway Boondoggles

10:27 AM CDT on October 9, 2014

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Northeast Ohio has lost 7 percent of its population since the 1970s, but has continued to steadily add highway miles. Chart: NEOSCC
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Why do transportation agencies spend so much money building new highways while letting their existing roads and bridges fall apart?

Jason Segedy, the head of Akron's metropolitan planning agency (AMATS), shared a few thoughts on that question at his blog Notes from the Underground. A big problem, he says, is that regional and state agencies see federal transportation funding as "free money" for highway expansions:

I think that the federal government should transform most (if not all) of the [Surface Transportation Program] into a road and bridge maintenance program. I don’t think much (if any) of this funding should be available for highway capacity expansion projects.

I think that if state or local governments want to do those projects, it should largely be on their own dime. Too many states and local governments see the federal dollars as “free money” and undertake capacity expansions that they probably wouldn’t embark upon if these federal funds were unavailable for this purpose.

While there are always individual project exceptions, I think that most roadway capacity-adding projects (especially in a shrinking region like ours) are not cost-effective, especially given our changing demographics and our increasingly precarious fiscal position at the local, state, and federal level.

I think that governments throughout Ohio are collectively spending too much on new highway capacity and not enough on maintenance -- largely due to the fact that federal money can be used for capacity expansion.

Making states face the full cost of road expansion -- sounds like a great idea. Think Congress could be convinced?

Elsewhere on the Network today: Bike Portland reports that business is booming for a local convenience store whose owner has gone out of the way to cater to cyclists. Urban Cincy shows off pictures of the Queen City's brand new protected bike lane. And Transportation for America rounds up the important local transit measures on ballots around the country next month.

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