So Many Transit Dollars For So Little Congestion Relief

When Congress eventually passes its six-year national transportation bill, the worst thing about it will not be that it was stalled for more than two years or its roughly $284 billion price tag. The worst thing is that it will do so little to improve the mobility of the nation’s travelers.

During the early 1980s, traffic congestion caused roughly 700 million person hours of delay each year. Today, congestion causes more than 3.5 billion hours of annual delay. During the early 1980s, more than 10 percent of commuters got to work on bus or rail transit. Today, less than 5 percent do, indicating that transit should not be counted on to help reduce congestion much.

How does the new transportation legislation propose to reverse these trends? It doesn’t. It just promises more of the same: higher spending on the road system, more money funneled into a variety of transit projects and, of course, individual home-state projects like the Alaskan bridge to nowhere that are an embarrassment to everyone but the congressman who pushed for it. Some states will get more funds than others, but in the end every senator and representative will be able to point proudly to some new stretch of road or mile of track and claim that it will help relieve his/her constituents’ travel woes.

Indeed, the fact that so many members make these claims helps explain why the claims are erroneous. Transportation funds are allocated throughout the country based on a complex process that places the greatest weight on the size of a state’s road system. States then have considerable flexibility to spend their money on maintaining roads, building new ones, financing transit projects, and so on. But there is no link between transportation expenditures and congestion in specific localities. Moreover, the most congested urbanized areas have little available land to expand their infrastructure even if more money were available. Even those cities that are experiencing sprawl do not stand to gain much from expanding their roads because the intercity highway system, which shoulders a large share of the burden of urban traffic, is largely complete.

The result is that billions of dollars of road spending are spread thin by being disbursed throughout the country and primarily used to keep an aging system from falling into decay. Demonstrable benefits to firms and the traveling public are in short supply. The nation’s productivity could be enhanced if firms could maintain lower inventories because new highway spending made transporting goods by truck less costly, faster, and more reliable. But the annual rate of return from highway infrastructure investments during the 1990s was a meager 1 percent.

Similarly, the costs of congestion to motorists, as reflected in longer travel times and lower fuel economy, could be reduced if spending eliminated bottlenecks and expanded capacity on highly congested thoroughfares. But in the late 1990s, one dollar of road spending in a given year reduced motorists’ congestion costs by only three cents.

A small share of transportation funds — a share that nonetheless amounts to tens of billions of dollars — is used to help pay for bus and rail transit projects. But bus service actually increases congestion to motorists, especially when it operates on exclusive bus lanes that would otherwise be available to all vehicles. Rail transit does divert some traffic off the roads, but rail systems are so expensive to build and operate and transport such a small share of travelers that they can be justified on cost-benefit grounds in only a few U.S. cities. Yet, dozens of states plan on using part of their transportation funds to expand their urban rail systems, and some are interested in building new ones.

Instead of being used as the primary weapon in the fight against congestion, the funds authorized by the national transportation bill should play a supplemental role and, accordingly, be reduced. Road pricing should be the weapon of choice. Although it has long been thought a pipe dream of economists, recent experiments in highway pricing in Houston, Los Angeles and San Diego, where motorists have the option to pay for a pricier but much faster trip, show the dream is alive. Research and now practice reveals that many, not just the rich, will take advantage of the option to pay for high-speed road travel. And road pricing reduces congestion without using financial resources. The only spending required is the modest sums to set up the initial tolling mechanism. The toll revenues themselves can finance road improvements.

Road pricing has a big political downside. By reducing congestion without building more roads or transit systems, it weakens the justification for huge transportation bills that build projects popular with legislators and some of their most valued constituents. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., who has opposed the Senate’s version of the transportation bill, warned lawmakers not to get between a congressman and asphalt, because you will always get run over. The problem with the transportation bill is that after the asphalt is laid, you are not likely to get there any faster.