By Phineas Baxandall and Jeff Inglis, September 24, 2014
Congestion relief has nothing to do with Arizona and Nevada’s zeal to expand U.S. Route 93 and rebrand it I-11.
A recent report by U.S.
PIRG and the Frontier Group, “Highway Boondoggles: Wasted Money and
America’s Transportation Future,” examines 11 of the most wasteful,
least justifiable road projects underway in America right now. Here’s
the latest installment in our series profiling the various bad decisions that funnel so much money to infrastructure that does no good.
Arizona and Nevada have proposed a
$2.5 billion project to expand U.S. 93 through the desert between
Phoenix and Las Vegas — a change that would mean the road could be added
to the federal Interstate highway system and renamed I-11 — despite
planners’ acknowledgments that barely any of the existing 200-mile road
has any congestion at present, and that even under conditions of rapid
traffic growth, that will not change substantially.
Justifications for building Interstate 11 often begin by noting that
Phoenix and Las Vegas are the two largest adjacent U.S. cities that are
not linked by an Interstate highway. But the two cities are linked by an
existing highway — U.S. Route 93 — which may not boast the designation
of “Interstate,” but is a four-lane divided highway for all but 45 miles
of its length between Phoenix and Las Vegas. The remaining 45 miles
largely traverse sparsely populated areas. The Interstate 11 project
would widen those remaining stretches and make other modifications of
varying scope to the entire length of the highway.
It is telling that in the official summary of reasons for
constructing I-11, traffic and congestion are mentioned last, and only
in terms of the potential of “reaching unacceptable levels of
congestion, threatening economic competitiveness.” Recent trends in
travel along the corridor show that at nearly all of the highway’s
traffic counter locations, traffic growth has been slower than is
forecast in project documents or has actually declined.
Arizona DOT and Nevada DOT show 12 locations between Phoenix and Las
Vegas where projected traffic counts and actual traffic counts can be
compared. In all 12 locations the DOTs projected that traffic would
increase. In 10 of those locations traffic counts failed to reach DOT
forecasts. In only two locations did traffic counts actually surpass the
forecasted level; the only such location in Arizona was the six-mile
stretch of U.S. 93 between the Nevada border and the remote Kingman Wash
Road. In six locations along the route, traffic counts actually
Indeed, the argument proponents make for I-11 seems to be as much about attracting more traffic to the Las Vegas-Phoenix corridor as reducing congestion.
The Corridor Justification Report
released by the Nevada and Arizona Departments of Transportation claims
that 9 percent of existing highways in the surrounding megaregion —
which the report defines as reaching all the way to Los Angeles — were
“unacceptably congested” in 2011. It claims that if no major
road-building investment is made, and economic and population growth
continue along current trend lines, 28 percent of the megaregion’s
highways — again, many of them in the Los Angeles region — will be
“unacceptably congested” by 2040. In other words, the justification for
the project in the middle of the desert is based largely on expectations
for worsening traffic in Los Angeles. Project proponents argue that
I-11 will reduce congestion in this broader region by siphoning off
interstate traffic that had once passed through southern California and
directing it to the Phoenix-Las Vegas corridor instead.
Proponents of the project hope it will spur economic development by
drawing long-distance truck traffic to the corridor. Regional
economic-development planners have been trying since at least 1991 to
take advantage of opportunities they see in the North American Free
Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to create a high-capacity freight corridor
running north-south between Canada and Mexico in the region between the
Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada and Cascade ranges.
Backers of the widening also include major real-estate developers
along the highway route, who hope to build major new residential and
commercial projects. One developer sees so much potential to develop
sprawling housing and commercial projects in the desert between Las
Vegas and Phoenix that he is offering to donate land on which to build the highway.
While construction of Interstate 11 might have a limited
transportation benefit, other investments being made in the region are
beating expectations at meeting pressing needs and could use additional
support. From 2003 to 2013, Phoenix’s transit ridership rose 45.9
percent, from 50.3 million to 73.4 million trips. Its light rail system,
opened in 2008, is already beating ridership expectations, a stark
contrast with driving failing to reach forecasted levels. With 20 miles
of track in place, there are plans to add 10 more miles in the next
decade, and to triple ridership in the next 30 years.