If you have been too distracted by Donald Trump to follow local politics, Andrew Cuomo, over the past year, has been on a massive infrastructure spending spree. 7 months ago he began work on a complete reconstruction of LaGuardia Airport’s terminals. He then announced his plan to build Moynihan Station and completely reconstruct Penn Station’s LIRR concourse. When the New Year arrived, to much fanfare and cheer from Upper East Siders, he opened the first phase of the Second Avenue Subway. And finally, only a week ago, he announced his grand plan to
land a man on the moon and return him safely to the Earth rebuild JFK Airport.
The plan is what you would expect from a Cuomo infrastructure plan: lots of shiny new buildings, many usb ports, and an extremely grandiose PowerPoint presentation. This is not to say that it’s bad, though. To the contrary, many aspects of it are really good. The new ring road system, for instance, stands to dramatically reduce the number of cars going in complete circles trying to find their terminals, and the focus on improving mass transit connections at JFK is extremely promising.
However, there is one aspect that would not only fail to remedy the problem it purports to solve, but would also make the problem worse: the expansion of the highways going into JFK Airport.
To be more specific, Cuomo’s proposal calls for the expansion of the Kew Gardens Interchange (pictured above), the point where the Grand Central Parkway and the Van Wyck Expressway meet, from 2 lanes in each direction to 3, creating an interchange with a total of 12 traffic lanes. Along with this he is also calling for the expansion of the Van Wyck Expressway from 3 lanes in each direction to 4 (3 general lanes and a carpool/bus lane). All in all, he expects that this would not only reduce traffic, but would also result in a 30% reduction in emissions and up to 10.8 million gallons of gas being conserved every year.
These figures sound great. There is just one little problem with them: they are not backed up by any sort of science, all thanks to a concept known as induced demand.
Parapharsing Sam Schartz, induced demand is a brainer way of saying “if you build it, they will come.” It says that if a highway is expanded, instead of speeding up traffic, it will instead add traffic. Thus, by expanding highways, you are only giving potential drivers an incentive to drive and take up the highway space that you just built, which has been documented as happening every time a highway has opened or been expanded in the US.
One doesn’t even need to look that far back to find a case of this happening, the most recent being a highway expansion project in, where else, Los Angeles. The highway in question is the I-405 freeway, infamous as being the most frustrating and congested freeway in the nation, and LA Metro, the government body that maintains the I-405 along with the bazillion other highways that crisscross Los Angeles, thought they had a solution to this eternal gridlock: just add more lanes!
As described in a New York Times article covering its aftermath, LA Metro embarked on a massive expansion of the I-405 over the course of 6 years. It was disruptive, with one of its closings scaring people so much that it was given its own catchy name: “carmaggeden” (It should also be mentioned that the hysteria over this was so intense that JetBlue actually offered $4 flights between Burbank and Long Beach during the shutdown. Seriously). It was also expensive, costing Los Angeles taxpayers a little over $1.6 Billion.
So did this project, one so big that it would have made Robert Moses proud, actually accomplish anything? Not really. In fact, not much changed at all. A study by LA Metro found that, while trip times marginally improved outside of rush hour post expansion, during rush hour congestion was the same and at times worse. Plus, the New York Times article mentioned before also has quotes from commuters who use the I-405 saying how traffic remained the same and how some felt it was worse after the expansion.
So, taking all of this into consideration, along with the fact that Cuomo is currently estimating that these expansions would cost somewhere between $1.5 and $2 Billion to build, is this really worth it? They would do nothing outside of increase the amount of cars going into and out of JFK and would be a waste of taxpayer funds that could be used on more urgent and pressing projects.
Again, this is not to say that the entire JFK reconstruction proposal is flawed. But when an integral part of it relies on a practice that has been shown to make the problem it tries to solve worse, that alone should put the plan under more scrutiny and, perhaps, force a revision that better reflects the realities of highway expansion.