Highway construction is booming across America, and the federal government is pouring money into roadwork like never before — $162 billion over the next six years. So how come we're all sitting in so much traffic these days?
Congestion is the worst it has ever been. Statistics tell an alarming story: Americans spend 14.5 million hours every day stuck in traffic, trying to commute or move goods to market.
They also spend an estimated $23 billion a year, or $126 per motorist, on.vehicle repairs and operating costs incurred because of poorly maintained roads.
There are also terrible human costs: The Federal Highway Administration blames bad road design and conditions for 30 percent of highway fatalities. And idling cars and trucks emit environmentally unfriendly gases at an alarming rate.
Other statistics are just as damning. Consider that since 1970: The U.S. population has grown by 32 percent, while The number of licensed drivers has grown by 64 percent, The number of registered vehicles has grown by 90 percent, and The vehicle miles traveled has grown by 131 percent. However, Total number of road miles has grown by only 6 percent.
"What you have is essentially more people driving more vehicles more miles on about the same-sized road system [as existed 30 years ago]," says William Fay, president and CEO of the American Highway Users Alliance, a transportation advocacy group based in Washington. "You can start to see why we're falling short and winding up with a lot more traffic congestion."
Time Is Definitely On Their Side
The Annual Mobility Report released by the Texas Transportation Institute tracks the costs of traffic immobility. In its latest study it reported that travelers in 68 urban areas spent more than $72 billion in lost time and wasted fuel, or about $755 annually per driver. That's more than the cost of auto insurance in many places.
For example, when calculating commute times during peak periods in urban areas, the number of hours lost due to congestion above the roadway's normal capacity is a measure of how ill-suited the roads are to delivering people to and from their destinations. For a Los Angeleno, those three days' worth of congestion could have been spent at the beach — if there were a place to park.
Why Did It Get So Bad?
Fay says the government deserves a large part of the blame. Through neglect, a lack of political will and shifting fiscal priorities, the nation stopped adding capacity to the nation's road system and allowed bridges to deteriorate — almost 30 percent of the nation's bridges have been declared "structurally deficient" or "functionally obsolete" by the Department of Transportation.
For the past 30 years, revenues collected from gasoline and excise taxes and deposited into the Highway Trust Fund have been detoured into the federal government's general revenues, so any surpluses amassed from the interstate system would go elsewhere. This had the benefit of keeping the overall federal budget deficit low, but allowed the long-term neglect of the roadways on which commuters and commercial vehicles depend.
That money diversion ended with the passage in 1998 of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (or TEA 21), which rededicated gasoline taxes to use for highway purposes.That has spurred an explosion in roadwork, which is up 50 percent in the past few years. So there may be relief on the on-ramp.
Does It Toll For Thee?
While the government scurries to patch up potholes, there are other options to congestion.
Private toll roads are one solution, as are private express lanes where drivers pay extra to zip past stalled traffic. When toll roads are under used, however, they do not fulfill their purpose of diverting traffic from more congested freeways, while their construction drains public funds away from fixing public roads.
Consumers also chafe at the idea of paying twice to drive: first in the use of public funds to construct the road, and second in tolls to a private firm operating the roadway. If people don't see a benefit from using them, they won't pay the added cost — which means congestion on public roads would have to get even worse before cars migrate to other routes.
The Dulles Greenway, a 14-mile, privately owned toll road between Washington's Dulles Airport and Leesburg, Va., was intended to cut drivetime in half compared to traveling on Routes 7 and 28. But ridership is only about half of anticipated levels, meaning the $350 million highway is still operating under mountains of debt.
There is also mass transit, but even as federal support of mass transit has risen, and traffic congestion has increased, ridership has stayed at about the same levels it was 10 years ago, or about 5 percent of all commuters.
Alan Pisarski, a specialist in commuter habits, says that as bad as things are, they could be a lot worse, and that a lot of the congestion that could be expected is lessened because people's work schedules have been made more fluid. "What is happening is that the peak hour is no longer an hour, and it's continuing to spread out," he said.
"It's spreading for two reasons: Because people are being pushed to start their commutes sooner in order to get to the same place at the same time, or to start later to avoid the congestion; and at the same times people are voluntarily traveling off-peak because of flexitime — they may be given some latitude to leave the office sooner or later."
What's unclear is whether people who work out of their homes drive as much, if not more, even if they don't have to go into an office — there are drives to meet clients, trips to the stationery store or copy shop, or escapes to the gym.
Another alternative to ease congestion, carpooling, has done well in Washington, D.C., where about 16 percent of employees share rides and government offices promote the practice. But it's had much less success in other cities.
"When private companies have tried to promote this they haven't done very well," said Fay. "One oil company in Beaumont, Texas, had two employees who were next door neighbors. They said, 'All right, you both have pickup trucks, why don't you drive to work together?' And they said, 'Well, we see enough of each other, we want to drive by ourselves.'"