the cost of freeways

Richards Masoner’s blog post on Cyclelicious, “What are the operational costs of freeways?” got me thinking about the topic, even before I’d started this Caltrans Watch blog.

I’ve captured and extended his list, with additional ideas provided by his commenters, and will continue to add to it as I run across more information, or people suggest additions.

  • opportunity cost of funds: money spent on freeways is not available for spending on other transportation modes, nor on other social goods
  • opportunity cost of land: land taken up by freeways, which often require huge swaths right through the center of the most valuable property in a city, is rarely available for other uses; parking under elevated freeways has a low value; decking over of freeways is possible but rarely done
  • congestion: freeways are advertised as reducing congestion, however, due to the phenomenon of induced demand, they often increase volume and maintain the same level of congestion; congestion costs people time, fuel, and frustration
  • maintenance: roadways must be resurfaced in order to remain usable; the same vehicle on a surface street would cause somewhat less damage due to lower speeds, however, the biggest impact is that freeways have allowed and encouraged trucking companies to use larger and heavier trucks, and legislatures have enabled this change; this is a positive feedback loop with negative consequences – big trucks need bigger freeways, bigger freeways allow bigger trucks, etc.
  • landscaping: the expense of putting in and maintaining vegetation to soften the inherent ugly nature of freeways is a significant expense, so much so that some projects don’t even bother
  • trash: trash pickup is, sadly, mostly done by volunteers now, but whether it is volunteer labor, prison crews, or Caltrans employees, it still has real costs and value
  • air quality: freeways generate significant air pollution, which has the most impact on people living close by, which tend to be lower income neighborhoods; both the immediate and long-term health costs of this pollution are immense, and include very high asthma rates and brain damage caused by toxic metals
  • water quality: freeways generate huge amounts of runoff that is highly polluted with petroleum products and toxic heavy metals, but freeway project almost never capture and treat this runoff, with the result that freeways are a significant contributor to water quality decline
  • taxes: federal funds, both from the Highway Trust Fund and from general appropriations (now more than half the total), state funds, and local funds
  • bond interest: when bonds are sold to build freeways, the interest accumulates to far more than the nominal expense of the project
  • law enforcement: CHP and other law enforcement officers, and the 911 system
  • crashes:
    • property damage to motor vehicles, facilities and signs
    • medical expenses for crash victims
    • lost income: personal income lost during recovery (or permanent loss, for fatalities)
    • (though crashes occur less frequently on freeways than other roadways, their impact is just as severe because they occur at much higher speeds)
  • lighting: the high powered lights on freeway medians and on-ramps/off-ramps take huge amounts of electricity

What impacts and costs would you add?

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