The US spends about $200 billion on federal, state and local transportation infrastructure each year – including bridges, highways, aviation systems, waterways and public transit.
But are these projects helping the US end its addiction to oil or are they perpetuating it?
The Sierra Club ranked the 50 best and worst transportation projects. "The transportation infrastructure we build today will either keep us stranded in our cars and at the mercy of gas prices - a situation that today drains nearly $1 billion from our economy every day to pay for foreign oil - or it can promote transportation choices that reduce our reliance on oil, curb air, water and climate pollution, boost local economies and improve transportation equity and public health," says the report, "Smart Choices, Less Traffic: 50 Best and Worst Transportation Projects in the US."
"Americans can and should expect the dollars we spend on transportation to contribute to solving environmental and economic problems," it says. "Policies that more closely link transportation investments to performance measures such as oil use, fair access to transportation choices, and air quality," are needed.
The nation's transportation system accounts for roughly two-thirds of oil consumption and one-third of US greenhouse gas emissions, estimates the Energy Information Administration. While the US is taking a big step forward with standards that will double fuel economy by 2050, its transportation infrastructure investments are equally critical, says Sierra Club.
Transportation projects that perpetuate oil dependence and car-centric transportation contribute to climate disruption and smog pollution. Cars, trucks, and buses are the largest source of cancer-causing air pollution in the US. Therefore, the Outer Beltway around Washington D.C. will contribute to air pollution in a region already struggling with congestion and poor air quality, while projects like the Salt Lake City Bikeways and the Atlanta Beltline, a network of public parks, multi-use trails and transit by repurposing 22-miles of historic railroad corridors circling downtown Atlanta, will help to improve air quality.
Similarly, water quality is negatively impacted by the runoff of motor oil, dirt, deposited vehicle exhaust, road and tire particles, and automotive fluids that contaminate bodies of water. In addition, hundreds of thousands of acres of wetlands have been lost to highway projects.
And the economic side, highway projects are extremely expensive compared to multimodal ones. It costs a mind-numbing $100 million to $222 million to build ONE MILE of highway, depending on where it's built. It costs $25 million per mile for the Cincinnati streetcar.
Best and Worst Projects
Sierra Club evaluated transportation projects using five criteria: impact on oil consumption; and impacts on the environment, human health, the economy and on land use.
The "best" projects facilitate safe, efficient mobility through public transit, minimize negative impacts on air and water quality, improve public health (by encouraging more physical activity), create local jobs, and reduce suburban sprawl. The "worst" projects encourage the opposite.
Some of the best projects include:
Expanding public transit around the Washington, DC area; a new commuter railway in Orlando, Florida; and light rail near Minneapolis; and high speed rail that connects Midwestern cities.
The "Beltline" that circles Atlanta, Georgia converts 22 miles of railroad track into parks, trails and public transit
Bikeshare programs in Washingto DC; Chicago Streets for Cycling 2020 Plan, and Sheboygan County, Wisconsin's Non-motorized Transportation Pilot Program
Everglades Skyway: elevated bridges that restore water flow
Street car expansion in New Orleans and other cities
Bad projects include:
The worst projects hark back to the years when the focus was on moving cars as quickly as possible with little consideration for the communities they pass through. Many were proposed decades ago when gas cost under $1 a gallon and have never been reconsidered since.
For example, Indiana is planning a 142-mile highway expansion that was first proposed in the 1940s and the Outer Beltway in Virginia was first proposed in the 1960s.
And some projects are actually built specifically to develop fossil fuels, such as the Coalfields Expressway in Virginia and the Foothills West Transportation Access Project in Alaska.
Unfortunately, transportation policy hasn't caught up with the shifting culture in the US, where 80% of people live in urban areas.
"US transportation policy is largely getting it wrong," the report says. "Transit ridership is at record highs, yet transit systems across the country are forced to cut service and raise fares due to weak public investment at the federal, state, and local levels." And only 54% of Americans even have access to public transportation.
Meanwhile the average American household spends more on transportation than on food, education or healthcare - 16% of their annual budget.
Read Sierra Club's report and see the map of the best and worst projects: