With all the focus on poorly done transit investment on this blog, it’s sometimes easy to forget that the primary source of US transportation waste is still roads. Consider for example the following projects proposed in Southern California, not all funded:
- $1 billion fully funded for adding one carpool lane in one direction for 10 miles to the 405 through Sepulveda Pass; since the 405 will have to be closed for two days, this is locally dubbed Carmageddon. This is about $60 million per unidirectional lane-km, which is to my knowledge a record for above-ground highways.
- $3 billion proposed for 4.5 miles of twin tunnels to complete a gap in the 710, of which $780 million is funded by Measure R, which generally funded transit projects. The cost, $400 million per km, is not high by global tunnel standards, but compared with the opportunity cost of building transit in the area, it’s enormous.
- $4.1 billion for widening the 5 from 8 lanes to 12-14 for 27 miles, not yet funded. It’s about $18 million per unidirectional lane-km, a figure that’s cropped up elsewhere in the US and should be compared with about $15-80 million per double track-km for light rail, which has about eight or ten times the capacity per unidirectional track or lane.
Those projects are cheaper than the Big Dig or the Bay Bridge Eastern Span replacement, but also provide much less – two are routine widenings, and one is a minor tunnel. The point is that even small upgrades to road capacity cost as much as a major transit project.
The US road network has been a money sink going back to the first federal-aid highway act, in 1917. The reference here is 20th Century Sprawl, by Owen Gutfreund, who describes how motorist lobbies complained about license fees, fuel taxes, and other fees since the 1910s, and created road lockboxes for the revenue generated. Even though gas taxes were treated differently from cigarette and alcohol taxes, which do not go toward funding tobacco and distilleries, they were still not enough to pay for roads. In fact the only paid for about half the cost of highways, and there was a huge subsidy from gas tax-ineligible urban roads to the national and state roads.
The situation today is hardly different. Although proportionally there’s much less cross-subsidy than in the 1930s, due to the growth of suburbs connected by Interstates or other gas tax-eligible numbered roads, roads’ financial performance is still low. Under the fiction that local streets are paid by the tooth fairy, US roads are $75 billion a year in the hole: as of 2008, all gas tax and toll receipts are $122 billion, including the portion diverted to non-highway purposes, whereas total receipts to be spent on gas tax-eligible highways are $197 billion, including $4.3 billion spent on collection expenses. That’s 62% cost recovery.
It gets worse when one does a total lifecycle cost analysis and does not deed all local gas tax money to state highways: in Texas, the best-performing highways have 50% cost recovery, and most have much less. In Maryland, one transit advocate computed a 20% cost recovery for state highways, based on an analysis that treats most of the gas tax as just a sales tax on gasoline; but even if one considers the gas tax to be a user fee for roads, the extra money only raises cost recovery to 32%. Even tollways frequently lose money when interest on capital is included, and in one case even when interest is not included.
In other words, the entirety of the US road program is one giant money hole, of proportions that far exceed even the worst transit projects. I talk less about it because the best industry practice is to toll the roads and build far less of them rather than to control costs; there’s a good way to build a subway, but not to build 14-lane freeways.