Whatever our transportation foibles—and we have plentyofthem—Northwest cites are not exactly in the Texas League of transportation planning. A ribbon-cutting ceremony yesterday inaugurated a big new freeway in the Houston area. I mean it’s almost comically big:

Opponents of the project have noted its extreme size—18 lanes, counting toll and frontage lanes from Texas 6 to Washington, and more lanes at entrances and exits. The widening uprooted numerous businesses along the route and took two streets in the city of Spring Valley. Opponents also say the widening will increase emissions and noise and contribute to suburban sprawl.

Yikes—18 lanes wide and it’s 23 miles long. In fairness, 4 of those 18 lanes will operate as 2-person HOV lanes for a few hours each day. And some of the lanes will be subject to variable tolls that should ease congestion. But that’s not exactly progressive planning. I mean, check out Congressman Culberson’s position:

Culberson, whose ability to get federal dollars was crucial to the widening project, pledged not to give up a single freeway lane for Metro rail.

I don’t know about you, but I’m sure glad to see my tax dollars put to good use. And although the project cost $2.8 billion, that’s probably just the down payment.

  • It’s reasonable to expect that over the life of the freeway, Texans will shell out much, much more for privilege of using the road. In past studies (see here and here), Sightline has estimated that the cost of car crashes alone may exceed the cost of the roads on which they occur. And then there’s the cost of air pollution, physical inactivity, climate change, and all that other hippie stuff.

    Oh, and then there’s cost of gas. Sure, gasoline is a bit cheaper recently, but it’s still taking a huge toll on household budgets. This year, middle class households found it harder than ever before to fill the tank; in fact, it’s worse now than it was during the worst days of the energy crisis.

    Or maybe it just depends how you look at the problem:

    Exxon Mobil Corp., the world’s largest publicly traded oil company, reported income Thursday that shattered its own record for the biggest profit from operations by a U.S. corporation, earning $14.83 billion in the third quarter.

    At least someone in Texas is getting rich. And when a Texas company is doing that well, maybe it’s not so surprising to hear stuff like this:

    Culberson then told the crowd, “290’s next,” referring to plans by TxDOT and HCTRA to widen the Northwest Freeway, and build a tollway along Hempstead Highway. The double-barreled project is expected to extend through much of the next decade.

    Perry noted the roar of traffic below, above and around the crowd, which was gathered on a frontage road overpass.

    This is the sound of freedom we hear,” he said.

    Because nothing says freedom like melting polar ice caps, a transportation system that’s handcuffed to the price of international energy commodities, and 18 lanes of sweet, sweet liberty.

    I’m kidding, of course, but there is a serious point here. By avoiding these kind of mega-pork projects, the Northwest is doing itself a huge favor. We’re protecting our lifespans, keeping our air cleaner, and building cities that can prosper in an era of high energy prices. It could turn out that the best investment we make in freeways is just choosing not to invest in them.

    Anyway, it will be an interesting experiment. Let’s check back here in 10 years and see who did better: will it be Houston or the Vancouver-Seattle-Portland axis?