Is Your Transportation Project a Boondoggle?


Tony Dutzik, writing for the progressive Frontier Group, offers a ten ways of recognizing whether a highway project is a boondoggle. A few of his ideas are valid: a highway widening project aimed simply at creating a continuous four-lane road even when there is no demand for four lanes seems silly. But most of his suggestions are wrong: for example, he thinks that, if environmentalists have delayed a project long enough, that proves it shouldn’t be built, when in fact all it proves is that our current planning process allows people to indefinitely delay projects for little or no reason.

In response, I’d like to offer my own list of ten ways to determine whether a transportation project is a boondoggle. His list focused on highways, though some of his suggestions (“It is sold as needed for economic development”) are valid for transit. Although my list starts out with transit projects, it eventually applies to all types of transportation projects.

1. It’s a streetcar. Streetcar technology is 130 years old and has since been replaced by less expensive, more flexible buses. Streetcars being built today are no faster and are far more expensive than the ones built 130 years ago. All new streetcar projects and rehabilitations of existing streetcar lines are boondoggles.

2. It’s light rail. What we call light rail is a slight improvement on streetcars developed in the 1930s, meaning it is “only” 80 years old. Light-rail lines constructed today are no better, and far more expensive, than ones built in the 1930s. Buses can move more people faster and for far less money. All light-rail lines, new and rehabilitations, are boondoggles.

3. It’s commuter rail outside of the New York metropolitan area. New York City is the only city in America with jobs and populations so dense that buses can’t substitute for rail. Elsewhere, new commuter rail lines in places such as Dallas-Ft. Worth, Nashville, Orlando, Salt Lake City, South Florida, and elsewhere are so ridiculously expensive and carry so few commuters that in many cases it would have been less expensive to give every daily round-trip commuter a new Toyota Prius every single year for the life of the train. This also includes what the FTA calls “hybrid rail“–Diesel-powered railcars operating on commuter-rail or light-rail schedules. The New York exception doesn’t mean it makes sense to start new commuter trains there, but maintenance and rehabilitation of existing trains may be worthwhile (though see #9 below). All new commuter trains, and rehabilitations of trains outside of New York, are boondoggles.

4. It’s rapid transit, a.k.a. heavy rail, outside of New York City. Again with the exception of New York (though this time the city, not the metro area), electric-powered rapid transit–which was invented in the early 1890s by the same man who perfected the electric streetcar–has been rendered obsolete by buses. A dedicated busway can move more people at higher speeds and lower costs than the Chicago Transit Authority or Washington Metro. No new rapid-transit lines should be built anywhere–even New York–and as older rapid-transit lines wear out–except in New York (again, see #9 below)–they should be replaced by buses. All new rapid-transit lines, and rehabilitations of rapid transit outside of New York, are boondoggles.

5. It’s a dedicated busway. I just wrote that dedicated busways can replace rapid transit, but very few places in America need dedicated busways. Instead, build high-occupancy/toll lanes, and as bus traffic increases, raise the tolls to insure the lanes never get congested. At some point, the tolls may get so high that they effectively become dedicated busways, but at that point the buses will be moving far more people than almost any rail line outside of, again, New York City. All dedicated busways are boondoggles.

6. It’s an intercity passenger train. Conventional speed, higher speed, high speed, it doesn’t matter: intercity passenger trains were rendered obsolete by cars, buses, and planes. Their infrastructure and maintenance costs are much higher than any of the alternatives, and their operating costs will always be higher than at least some of the alternatives. Amtrak claims its Northeast Corridor is profitable, but that’s only by pretending maintenance and depreciation don’t count. Railroads make sense for freight; they no longer make sense for passengers. All intercity passenger trains are boondoggles.

7. It’s a smart highway. Various electronics companies want the government to spend hundreds of billions of dollars building intelligent transportation systems into roads to prepare the way for self-driving cars. But this is dumb; it is much more cost-effective to put all the smarts in the cars and keep the infrastructure simple, especially since local governments can’t afford to maintain the infrastructure they have now, much less smart infrastructure. Since cars are replaced more often than infrastructure, this also enables more rapid updates in technology. All intelligent highway projects that require vehicle-to-infrastructure communications are boondoggles.

8. It’s a bike lane project that reduces the number of lanes for automobiles. Many cities are attempting to encourage cycling while simultaneously discouraging driving by converting auto lanes to bike lanes, such as by changing a four-lane street to a two-lane street with a center left-turn lane and two bike lanes. This probably doesn’t increase bicycle safety, but it does increase traffic congestion. It is nearly alway possible to find parallel local streets that can be turned into bicycle boulevards without impeding through or local auto traffic. All bicycle projects that reduce the capacity of arterial or collector streets to move automobiles are boondoggles.

9. It can’t be paid for out of user fees. The primary beneficiaries of all transportation projects are the transportation users. Paying for transportation out of user fees is equitable since it is only fair for users to pay for what they use. More important, user fees send signals to both users and transportation providers informing users of when and where travel is most cost effective and informing providers of where new transportation facilities might be needed. User fees also impose a discipline on both providers and users that prevents boondoggles from taking place. Any transportation facility that can’t be paid for out of user fees is a boondoggle.

10. It doesn’t generate increased travel or shipping. Anti-highway groups complain that new roads “induce” more driving, and they think that is a bad thing. They advocate instead for transit projects whose users were former auto drivers. They have it backwards. Transportation projects that merely transfer users from one mode of travel to another more expensive mode are a drag on society. Projects that generate new travel create new economic opportunities. Only by generating new travel can projects stimulate economic development. Given a choice between projects that can be paid for out of user fees, the ones that generate the most new travel should be funded first.

In truth, the last two points cover everything. But the first eight are important because there is so much pressure to do those things that are actually boondoggles.

This piece first appeared on The Antiplanner.

Randal O’Toole is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute specializing in land use and transportation policy. He has written several books demonstrating the futility of government planning. Prior to working for Cato, he taught environmental economics at Yale, UC Berkeley, and Utah State University.

Photo by Josh Truelson (San Diego Trolley) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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Amen. Perfect.

One small additional point: High-occupancy/toll lanes are only useful if there are no less than three unrestricted lanes available. In dense areas where HOV lanes might be useful, one lane is needed for vehicles getting on or off, one for those that will get off soon and those that are switching lanes for whatever reason, and one for long-distance traffic. Anything less than that and all the HOV lanes do is subtract a lane, causing congestion, accidents, and chronic anger.

In places like LA, the minimum in some areas is probably more than three.

Also, the HOV lanes should only be restricted during rush hours.

It took Minnesota’s DOT years to realize the above. Not coincidentally, the realization came in an election year when the Democrats felt threatened.