clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Two giant interstates with at least eight lanes each intersect as shadows stretch in the early evening light as seen from overhead.
Cities must make dramatic emissions reductions to close the gap between commitments and reality, according to a new UN report.
Getty Images

Filed under:

These mayors pledged to reduce emissions. Why are they widening highways?

Climate Mayors make big promises at international summits—but some are expanding fossil-fuel infrastructure at home

In 2016, just after he was elected, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner gave a rousing speech calling for a “paradigm shift” in the city’s transportation priorities—moving away from building highways that serve single-occupant vehicles.

Houston’s transportation problems have gotten worse since Turner made that speech. Emissions from driving have gone up 127 percent in Houston’s metro area since 1990, with the most dramatic increases in auto emissions occurring in the last few years.

But earlier this year, Turner endorsed the North Houston Highway Improvement Project, a plan to spend a jaw-dropping $7 billion to widen 25 miles of highway in the city.

Turner’s about-face was even more surprising given that, in 2017, he was made co-chair of the Climate Mayors, a group of 438 U.S. mayors who have pledged to uphold the Paris Agreement’s goals to keep warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius after the U.S. government backed out.

United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) said dramatic actions must be taken in order to have a fighting chance to achieve that 1.5-degree target—starting with reducing carbon emissions by a minimum of 7.6 percent each year.

A rendering of a 12-lane wide highway with a large overpass in the distance.
Houston, we have a problem—a $7 billion problem.
Texas Department of Transportation

“We need quick wins to reduce emissions as much as possible in 2020,” said UNEP chief Inger Andersen when the Emissions Gap report was released. “We need to catch up on the years in which we procrastinated.”

A recent study published in Nature asserted that the only surefire way to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius is by canceling all proposed fossil-fuel infrastructure, period.

So how can the co-chair of the Climate Mayors support a car-centric highway widening project that will induce emissions for generations to come?

“America still has a misplaced appetite for costly and disruptive highway expansion projects,” says Matt Casale, transportation campaign director at U.S. Public Interest Research Groups (PIRG), which publishes an annual list of the country’s costliest highway expansion proposals. “To solve our transportation problems—from potholes to pollution to global warming—we need to put outdated highway projects in our rearview mirror.”

Turner isn’t alone. Other climate mayors are currently allowing massive expansions of highway infrastructure in their cities. There are at least nine major highway-widening projects with costs totaling $26 billion proposed or currently underway in U.S. metropolitan areas governed by members of the Climate Mayors group.

These mayors might argue that they have no jurisdiction over highway projects—that state transportation departments are in charge of expansion decisions, or that federal transportation funding determines how the money must be used.

But mayors, and particularly climate mayors with a global platform who wield outsized influence, are uniquely positioned to build coalitions and create political momentum, says Jon Orcutt, former advocacy director for TransitCenter, who organized a symposium on highway removals for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

“The city has to lead when it comes to urban and community design, and to articulate a vision for neighborhoods and commercial districts that people want to live and invest in,” he says. “So mayors saying highways are some other branch of government’s problem are either trying to blow off the issue or don’t understand where their true power comes from.”

In early December, just before the United Nations’ COP 25 climate summit began in Madrid, the Climate Mayors announced a 24-member steering committee to “serve as critical voices within the network and across the country to spotlight climate leadership exhibited in cities throughout the United States.”

Here’s what these new steering committee members should do first: make a list of the proposed highway expansion projects all over the country.

Here’s what they should do second: shut every single one of them down.

Historically, the voices of local leaders have been very successful in stopping highway widening projects. In fact, one of the projects on PIRG’s 2019 list, a brand-new freeway proposed outside Los Angeles, has already been killed since the list was published.

There are other signs of change when it comes to highway funding. A new transportation caucus was formed this fall in Congress in order to align federal dollars with the emission-reduction goals of the Green New Deal. Some federal funds are being used for highway removals.

Cities are capping highways with parks. Cities are reallocating highway money to rail expansions. Cities are turning highways into housing.

Stopping highway expansions will also impact much more than just emissions. There are tremendous social costs associated with these projects. Every mile of highway built in this country is guaranteed to separate communities, worsen air quality, increase traffic crashes, institutionalize car-dependency, and perpetuate racial inequality. In Houston, the plan to widen I-45 would require tearing down the homes of over 1,000 families, most of whom live in low-income neighborhoods.

Mayors have the power to break this cycle.

“If we take an approach where we build places in a way that reduces the need for commerce and commuters to travel in a vehicle, and build those places where the infrastructure and people already exist, we can truly impact climate change while also dramatically improving people’s lives,” Calvin Gladney, executive director of Smart Growth America, wrote in Route Fifty earlier this year.

Mayors also know what the better option is for their cities. Some of the best ideas for how to use highway money more effectively are found right there in Turner’s 2016 speech. “We need greater focus on intercity rail, regional rail, high occupancy vehicle facilities, park and rides, transit centers, and robust local transit,” he said. “These modes are the future foundation of a successful urban mobility system. It’s all about providing transportation choices.”

Every day, these climate mayors are making major transportation decisions changing the lives of their constituents. If they take a stand against these highway expansion projects, they can change the course of history.

9 highway projects climate mayors should cancel

A rendering of a massive multi-level highway with a bright green set of lanes in the center.
It’s like the Grand Canyon of highways, but in downtown Austin.
Texas Department of Transportation
Austin’s I-35 expansion

Mayor Steve Adler, Climate Mayors steering committee
Critics are calling a three-lane expansion of a highway that cuts through the city’s downtown a “betrayal” of the city’s environmental values at a time when residents are clamoring for more transit options. “Two billion could get us 19 miles of light rail right through the heart of this city,” transportation expert Steven Knapp told the Texas Tribune. Estimated cost: $8 billion

North Houston Highway Improvement Project

Mayor Sylvester Turner, Climate Mayors co-chairperson
The plan to expand I-45 will create a highway that’s up to two football fields wide in an attempt to reduce congestion. (Houston’s track record here isn’t the best.) “The community needs to know this isn’t going to improve Houston’s transportation, it is going to make the air worse, and it is going to displace families,” Bay Scoggin, a member of Texas PIRG, told Curbed. Estimated cost: $7 billion

Chicago’s Tri-State Tollway

Mayor Lori Lightfoot
The Tri-State Tollway, which forms a large arc around the Chicago metropolitan area, has actually already been widened to add more capacity—twice! Third time’s the charm? Lightfoot may be new to office, but she’s already nixed a tunnel from Elon Musk’s Boring Company to O’Hare Airport and is quadrupling funding for bus lanes. Perhaps she could send this project down a more righteous path, too. Estimated cost: $4 billion.

A rendering of a gigantic highway interchange with dozens of off and on ramps.
A rendering of San Antonio’s Loop 1604 interchange proves that everything really is bigger in Texas.
Texas Department of Transportation
San Antonio’s Loop 1604 expansion

Mayor Ron Nirenberg, Climate Mayors steering committee
A four-lane interchange on San Antonio’s outer loop would somehow become 10 lanes wide and three levels high as part of this major project to add over 50 miles of new lanes to two major highways. Estimated cost: $3 billion

Raleigh’s Complete 540 plan

Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin
A sprawl-inducing plan to complete a loop highway around the growing North Carolina city has been delayed by lawsuits from environmentalists but was just cleared to move forward. Baldwin was just sworn in this December, but she’s got an opportunity to show that she’s aggressive on climate issues—what better way to make a splash? Estimated cost: $2.2 billion

Detroit’s I-75 widening

Mayor Mike Duggan, Climate Mayors steering committee
This proposal to “modernize” a highway in Detroit’s suburbs was misguided from the start. When asked to explore alternatives, Michigan’s DOT claimed the area is not densely populated enough to support public transit. Then why widen the highway? On the nearby I-94 project, residents pushed back against wider roads. Estimated cost: $1 billion

A rendering showing two busy highways with a park filled with people that appears to be right next to the lanes of traffic.
Florida traffic engineers think people will just want to hang out next to the expanded I-395 highway, because who doesn’t love new highways?
Florida Department of Transportation
Connecting Miami project

Mayor Francis Suarez
Miami’s highways notoriously severed the city’s historic black neighborhoods and a pair of controversial widening projects planned for I-395 and SR-836 will make the problem worse. A grassroots alternative wants an at-grade boulevard that could revive the community. Estimated cost: $802 million

Dallas’s LBJ East expansion and I-30 widening

Mayor Eric Johnson, Climate Mayors steering committee
The city just debuted a progressive climate plan with big transportation goals, but a pair of proposals would throw that plan off track. The LBJ East expansion would widen a highway to 12 lanes about ten miles from downtown; another plan to widen I-30 through downtown would double the size of the roadway to six lanes. Estimated cost: $1.6 billion & $300 million

Portland’s I-5 Rose Quarter widening

Mayor Ted Wheeler
Yes, Portland, Oregon, a city that most people associate with bikeways, not highways, wants to widen a downtown interstate by telling local residents it would improve safety and air quality while fixing traffic. The group No More Freeway Expansions isn’t buying it, and is working hard to stop the project. Estimated cost: $450 million

Los Angeles

Does L.A. Really Need a Gondola to Dodger Stadium?


Somehow Elon Musk’s Tesla Tunnels Are Even Less Useful Now


Why Bus-Loving Rep. Ayanna Pressley Wants Transit to Be Free

View all stories in Transportation