Famous Seer Predicts Congestion Will Get Worse . . .

Steven Polzin's picture

In spring 2007, the Texas Transportation Institute and its partners will release the newest version of the "Mobility Report." This eagerly-awaited document will chronicle the worsening congestion in urban and suburban America. The report typically spawns a frenzy of media stories as folks eagerly peruse the ranking lists finding out just how their area did. While methodology tweaks and data issues might add a few wrinkles, no one will be surprised to see congestion worse than the prior report two years ago. Surprise, surprise! We failed to invest sufficiently in transportation infrastructure and services, and we failed to price transportation infrastructure and services correctly--but we continue to wail about the growing crisis. Some folks go on to explore the causes of worsening congestion, attributing it to failed urban development policies, misdirected transportation spending priorities, evidence that we can't build our way out of congestion, lack of transportation-land use coordination, and a number of other factors. In fact, a huge share of the problem is that we under-price travel and under-invest in transportation infrastructure and service. As shown in the figure below, income per capita (even adjusted for inflation) has been increasing, and travel costs have remained very low when measured by household spending per vehicle mile of travel.

Not surprisingly, there is no cost deterrent to encourage traveling less. While a typical household spent over $400 more on fuel in 2005 compared to 2004, and fuel costs may have again increased a few hundred dollars last year (BLS data not yet available), the additional average annual cost of fuel is far less than the cost of those fancy big wheels and low-profile tires, the add-on sunroof, or the stereo upgrades. A very competitive auto market, low interest rates, cars that are well into their teenage years before being junked, and safety improvements that keep insurance costs down have helped to keep total spending for auto transportation relatively stable. While politicians have been scared to death to even talk about gas tax increases, the contractors building roads or transit systems are not at all bashful about passing on their much higher costs for construction. Let's not even think about the cost increases for right-of-way. Construction cost indices alone show dramatic declines in buying power for transportation dollars. When this is coupled with right-of-way costs, maintenance of transportation costs, scope creep to satisfy every imaginable constituency, and assorted other cost elements, it is not uncommon to see project costs increasing 50 to 100% over the last three or four years.

Next time you throw a coin in the wishing well, wish for wisdom and backbone for our transportation decision-makers. Then go retrieve the coin--you might need it to pay tolls.

Steven Polzin is the director of mobility policy research at the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida.


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