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Reason Foundation

Surface Transportation Innovations #31

Topics include: US DOT's new anti-congestion program; tolling key to adding highway capacity; Washington DOT congestion study recommends more lanes and pricing; debunking sprawl misconceptions; and Gabriel Roth's new book on market-based roadways.

Robert Poole
May 1, 2006

In this issue:

DOT Declares War on Congestion

As I noted in Issue No. 29, at its leadership retreat in January, the top officials of the U.S. Department of Transportation decided that the overriding theme of department efforts between now and 2009 will be reducing congestion. Secretary Mineta unveiled the new "National Strategy to Reduce Congestion on America's Transportation Network" on May 16 in a speech to the national Retail Federation. Echoing points we've been making in Reason's Mobility Project, Mineta declared, "Congestion is not a scientific mystery, nor is it an uncontrollable force. Congestion results from poor policy choices and a failure to separate solutions that are effective from those that are not."

The program summary (www.dot.gov/affairs/dot5706.htm) makes a number of good points, including the fact that the commonly used measure of traffic congestion cost, from Texas Transportation Institute, includes only lost time and wasted fuel. The cost figure "would be much higher if unreliability, inventory, environmental, and other costs were included." The summary highlights the huge disparity between the growth of traffic and lack of expansion of highway capacity. In his speech, Mineta acknowledged "the need for large-scale investments in physical infrastructure," especially in "major, multi-state trade and travel corridors." And the statement also highlights the importance of pricing as a key tool for dealing with congestion.

I'd give this document a B+ or A- in describing the problem correctly. But the next question is where's the beef? What about the substance of the six-point program? Obviously, since Congress just last fall enacted its pork-laden surface transportation reauthorization bill, DOT cannot offer to shower large new sums on states and urban areas. But what it can do is to encourage (incentivize) them to focus their efforts on seriously reducing congestion. Here are some examples from the six-point program.

Urban Partnership Agreements

DOT will look for a handful of urban areas that will commit to greatly expanded use of pricing (e.g., value-price their most congested corridor or implement a HOT Network) and express bus service. The winner(s) will get extra funding help, environmental streamlining, tolling flexibility, etc.—all kinds of things that could actually make a significant difference in getting large-scale projects implemented. This could be just the ticket for a San Francisco Bay Area HOT Network or a Truck-Only Toll system in Atlanta.

Corridors of the Future Competition

DOT will seek proposals for three to five multi-state, multi-use transportation corridors, again offering fast-tracking incentives. This is a welcome path forward for truck tollway projects that, to make economic sense, need to go from a logical trucking origin to a logical trucking destination (e.g., from Harrisburg to Knoxville on I-81 or Atlanta to Detroit on I-75). Multi-state projects are inherently difficult, so facilitation and coordination from the feds could make a big difference.

Expanding State PPP Legislation

Another way DOT can help is to draft model legislation for toll road public-private partnerships, drawing on best-practices states such as Georgia, Utah, Virginia, and Texas and to encourage states with large needs to enact such laws. The feds' Value Pricing Pilot Program has done yeoman work over the past decade spreading the word on HOT lanes via workshops, seminars, websites, etc. The same potential is there for PPPs.

I'm pleased to see this new leadership on congestion-reduction from DOT. Starting next month, you will see a succession of new policy studies from Reason's Mobility Project that will reinforce the case that, as Mineta says, "Congestion is not a fact of life. We need a new approach and we need it now."


To Add Needed Capacity, We're Going to Need Tolling

I can't tell you how many times I've been told by various transportation researchers and state DOT people that, as much as I'm a big fan of tolling, it's really just a side-show. After all, toll roads make up only 4,630 miles of the 162,000 National Highway System (which consists of the Interstates plus other major state and federal highways). And the annual toll revenues from these facilities totals just $6.5 billion, a mere 4.5% of the $147 billion in highway funding in 2004.

What's wrong with this picture is that it's merely a snapshot of the status quo. It does not look at the dynamics of what is happening these days. If you ask a more sophisticated question, such as how much of the new, limited-access highway capacity added since 1991 is funded by tolls, or how much of what is planned over the next decade will be toll-funded, you get a very different answer.

Fortunately, our friends at the Federal Highway Administration asked PBConsult's Ben Perez and Steve Lockwood to look into those dynamics. The results were released last month as "Current toll Road Activity in the U.S.: A Survey and Analysis" (soon to be available at www.fhwa.dot.gov/ppp). And just as I expected, the picture they paint is dramatically different from the status-quo snapshot.

Since enactment of the ISTEA reauthorization in 1991 (which cracked open the long-standing federal ban on tolling on federal-aid highways), 22 states and one territory have launched 147 new toll projects. Those projects represent 3,400 new centerline miles and over 13,800 lane-miles of new capacity (about two-thirds of which is still under development). The total dollar value of these projects is about $76 billion. About three-quarters of the lane-miles are toll roads, about 15% are HOT or express toll lanes, and nearly 10% are truck toll projects. And nearly half of these projects are being pursued under PPP agreements.

Now here's the really important figure. During the past 10 years, nationwide, we've been adding only 150-175 miles per year of urban expressway. At 50 to 75 miles per year, tolled facilities constitute 30 to 40% of that new capacity. And based on the projects in the pipeline, the report estimates that in the next decade, new toll roads will increase to about 150 miles per year. Given these trends, plus the recent increase in federal support for tolling and PPPs, you can expect to see PPP toll roads play a major role in reducing congestion by expanding urban expressway capacity.


Transit as Congestion-Buster? Think Again

Officials in Washington State have recently joined those of Texas and Georgia in asking what it would take not merely to keep traffic congestion from getting worse over the next 20 years, but to roll it back significantly. At the legislature's direction, Washington State DOT commissioned a 10-member team, led by Parsons Brinckerhoff, to conduct a detailed congestion relief analysis. The Phase I report, released in March, is well worth reading.(www.wsdot.wa.gov/mobility) The team modeled a number of transportation investment scenarios aimed at reducing congestion in 2025 in the state's three major urban areas. The scenarios included one focused almost entirely on adding highway capacity, another focused on adding transit capacity, a third blending aspects of the previous two, two other blends focused fairly heavily on either highways or transit, and a sixth based on transit plus pricing. (Oddly, there was no scenario featuring highways plus pricing, which might have been the most effective of all.)

Here are some of the more important findings from the study:

When you look carefully at the comparative results of these scenarios (e.g., for the greater Seattle area), the highway-capacity expansion ones produced the greatest reductions in delay. The two transit-focused scenarios would lead to 40 to 100% greater congestion in 2025 than the two highway-focused scenarios. The only scenarios that compare to the highway expansion ones, in terms of delay reduction, are the pricing scenarios, but those (unfortunately) modeled the politically unrealistic approach of putting tolls on the existing (congested but unexpanded) freeways.

These are important findings, because there was clearly no pro-highways or pro-construction bias in this study. The research team, in my view, bent over backwards to give transit every benefit of the doubt. But it still turned out to be ineffective as a tool for reducing congestion.

This is not to say that mass transit has no role to play. It clearly is an important part of the overall transportation system. For some types of travelers, and in some corridors, transit can be a workable alternative. But it is far too costly, and serves far too small a fraction of the overall travel demand, to be capable of making a real dent in urban traffic congestion in the kinds of suburbanized metro areas most of us live and work in. We need to stop kidding ourselves about transit playing a significant role in the war against congestion.


Looking (Carefully) at Urban Sprawl

Everybody argues about urban sprawl (a.k.a. low-density development), but much of the debate about it is based on speculation rather than fact. "We know next to nothing about the extent to which development is scattered or compact, and how this varies across space." So wrote four researchers in the May issue of The Quarterly Journal of Economics in a paper titled, "Causes of Sprawl: A Portrait from Space." (The abstract is available at www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/pdf/10.1162qjec.2006.121.2.587. You have to pay to download the full paper.)

What researchers Matthew Turner, Diego Puga, Marcy Burchfield, and Henry Overman did was to create a database to compare actual U.S. land uses in 1976 (using aerial photos) and 1992 (from satellite photos). This gave them a grid of 8.7 billion cells, 30 x 30 meters each. Nobody had ever created such a data set before, enabling detailed comparisons of changes in land use over 15 years. This enabled them to calculate the average amount of open space in the vicinity of a house in every urban area in both years, which they used as a measure of the extent of sprawl.

Their findings are very interesting. First, overall there was no change in the degree of sprawl over this 15-year period. In 1976 42% of the land within a square kilometer of the average residence was open space, compared with 43% in 1992. Overall, Los Angeles, Miami, and San Francisco were the most compact urban areas, while Atlanta and Pittsburgh were the most "sprawling."

Using their data on sprawl, the authors sought to see what factors statistically explain the variation among urban areas. Climate, topography, and access to groundwater (aquifers) accounted for about 25% of the variation. The number of municipalities in the metro area had no effect�a blow to advocates of metro government. Interesting for us transportation policy wonks, they also found no impact from roads on whether or not development is scattered. "We looked at a lot of measures of road density � miles of road per area, average distance to a road, distance to an Interstate exit � and we could find no relation between those measures and the scatteredness of development," Turner told Terradaily.

This research is a welcome addition to the literature on urban land-use and its relationship to transportation and other factors.


Recommended Reading: Street Smart

Just out from the Independent Institute is an important new book on the future of roadways. Conceived and edited by my friend and colleague Gabriel Roth, it should be on every transportation policy wonk's must-read list, at least if you're thinking about how we can provide the high-quality roadways we need in the 21st century. Street Smart: Competition, Entrepreneurship, and the Future of Roads (Transaction Publishers, 2006, 564 pp.) carries an introduction by former FHWA Administrator Mary Peters citing the importance of harnessing market forces to the task of re-inventing roadways for a new century.

The book's 20 chapters were written by a number of leading transportation thinkers, including Ken Button, Ian Heggie, Dan Klein, David Levinson, Herb Mohring, Peter Samuel, John Semmens, Ed Sullivan, and Roth himself. Ken Orski and I contributed an updated version of our original Reason policy paper on HOT Networks. I've read only a few of these chapters thus far (the book just my mailbox this week) but they all look well-done and thought-provoking.

Do yourself a favor and buy this book!


Robert Poole is Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow and Director of Transportation Policy


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