Learning to Love Your Traffic Engineer – Cost

NJ.COM Picture

NJ.COM Picture

To learn to love our traffic engineers, we must understand why they prioritize cost least when designing roadway improvements. Cost varies a lot – $1M / lane mile is a general rule of thumb, but the NJ Turnpike’s current expansion costs $14.7M / lane mile and Boston’s Big Dig cost $136.2M / lane mile.

Standard engineering practice is to build for more speed, which means more and wider lanes, plus expanded roadside sight distances, which may require purchasing right-of-way, etc., all adding to the cost. Also, engineers are required to forecast volume 20 years into the future and build for anticipated increases.

But other factors are at work – e.g. a 1961 bridge in Washington State cost $159M in today’s dollars, but the replacement is projected to cost $4.6B, including 2 additional lanes.

This dramatic $4B increase over inflation points to issues on the process, financial and political sides, including the revolving door between government and private industry, politicians’ dependence on corporate contributions to get re-elected, government dependence on borrowing to finance road projects, even “commonplace” corruption, according to a New York State report.

If nobody has an incentive and/or is held accountable for cost containment, neither politicians nor engineers, it’s easy to see why it’s not a priority.

We’ve finished examining how citizens prioritize safety, cost, volume and speed differently than traffic engineers, so our next installment will look at one reason engineers use to convince us that they know best – because of the standards.

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