When 41 million hours of waiting and $860 million of lost earnings evaporate in the haze of I-95 traffic jams every year, we should be doing everything we can to make wise investments to relieve congestion and improve transit along the corridor. Although studies have shown highway expansion would not solve I-95 congestion, Gov. Dannel Malloy has made expansion of the I-95 part of his 30-year, $100 billion transportation plan “Let’s Go CT!”
Expanding the I-95 may not only worsen congestion, but also cost the state millions per year in administrative and maintenance costs, and detrimentally alter the incentive structure that guides the decision-making of commuters and service providers for years to come.
Highway expansion is not the answer to congestion issues – in many cases, expansion causes induced demand. As Tom Maziarz (chief of planning at the Connecticut Department of Transportation) acknowledged, “You can’t build your way out of congestion.”
A cursory examination of the Katy Freeway in Texas reveals that the $2.8 billion expansion project (which made the highway the widest in the country) actually caused the morning commute duration to increase by 30 percent, and the afternoon commute time to grow by 55 percent, all within the span of two years. This is due to induced demand, where the increase in capacity attracts additional vehicles, leading to the resurgence of congestion problems.
Connecticut has already commissioned a $1.2 million study in 2004 to analyze what would happen if I-95 is widened in Connecticut. The study concluded that widening would lead to more problems: a 60 percent increase in traffic accidents due to narrower lanes, blocking of first responders from reaching emergency scenes and rescuing people from danger, a spike in air pollution and associated respiratory diseases, and the rapid attraction of an additional 1,050 additional vehicles per hour to further clog lanes. In short, expansion of the I-95 would not be a solution to our problem.
Expanding the I-95 would also be a poor long-term investment, since the expansion would require not only $11.2 billion for construction, but also the payment of massive administrative and maintenance fees for years to come. Just last year, Connecticut was confronted with a $1.3 billion budget deficit, a stark reminder that we cannot afford to make poor long-term investments. If I-95 expansion is implemented, the forecast for total highway preservation and safety costs over the course of 25 years stands at $15.5 billion. By comparison, the maintenance of Connecticut’s entire bus system in the same time period costs $2 billion, and commuter rail preservation costs merely $25 million. It is clear that bus and rail maintenance costs are far smaller than highway safety costs, and that expanding the I-95 would be extremely costly for decades to come.
For billion-dollar infrastructure projects, it is also critical to consider whether it matches the evolving needs of communities. According to a 2015 study by the Urban Land Institute, 63% of millennials would prefer to live in a place where they do not need to drive a car very often, reflecting a shift in travel patterns away from long highway commutes and towards environmentally friendly transit options. Congestion problems should serve as an impetus to shift towards alternative modes of transportation, especially ones that pursue a more environmentally friendly and energy efficient future. The expansion of the I-95 would set back this positive trend. Legislators should account for the way their decisions impact the choices of the community, and recognize that I-95 expansion would not place Connecticut on an optimal development path.
The other projects in the “Let’s Go CT!” proposal are much more worthwhile. They include improvements to commuter bus, rail services, and even bike trails. Currently, Connecticut is not in a situation in which it can misuse billions in funding. 48 percent of our major roads are in poor condition, yet over a third of the funding currently allocated to road repairs and upgrades would be consumed by expanding I-95. Surely, given the massive backlog of delayed repairs and maintenance, $11.2 billion can be better spent. In particular, the currently allocated funding for rail services remains insufficient, as years of delayed maintenance and safety upgrades will require an additional $1.8 billion to overcome. The situation is urgent, the benefits are dubious, and the consequences are severe.
I-95 expansion should not be a part of “Let’s Go CT!”
Jeffrey Fu is a student at Yale University.