Tight Budget for Fixing Choked Roads

A new study out confirms what many drivers already know: Congestion on the nation's highways is getting worse.

The report, by The Road Information Program, found travel on the Interstate system increased by 37 percent from 1991 to 2001 — but construction of new highway lanes during that time jumped only 5 percent.

That means that in urban areas, two out of every five interstate miles is considered congested, which means there are significant delays.

Jacki Bacharach drives the Los Angeles freeways to get to her job as the executive director of South Bay Cities Council of Governments. It's a 35-mile commute from her home to the office. On bad days it can take her one hour and 15 minutes to make the trip.

"Traffic is getting worse and worse," she said, "and you never know that the conditions are going to be when you get there."

This is despite record federal and state spending in the 1990s. In 1992, federal highway dollars alone totaled $18 billion. This year federal spending will top $31 billion. That's a 26 percent increase adjusted for inflation. And state and local spending went up about the same percentage, for a combined federal, state and local road budget of $65 billion.

Today's study found that that money has made a difference in improving the condition of roads and bridges. Interstate miles in poor or mediocre condition decreased from 27 percent to 16 percent in the last five years. But the study says more money needs to go into expanding roads or gridlock will only get worse.

"When you're looking at travel increasing by 40 percent by the year 2020 and trucking increasing by 50 percent," said Frank Moretti, TRIP's director of policy and research. "The reality is we don't have a highway network that's going to be able to handle that traffic."

Picking Up the Bill?

The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials says 42 percent more money is needed just to maintain current road conditions and that nearly doubling the current expenditures to $125 billion is necessary to reduce congestion.

But federal and state governments are facing a huge budget crunch. California, for example, doubled its state road spending in the past few years. Now it is facing a budget deficit that the governor estimates at $34 billion.

"We literally are spending everything that is in our the state highway account," said Jeff Morales, the director of the California Department of Transportation. "We'll be down to something like 42 cents, I think, at the end of the year.

"We're seeing reductions already in the money coming into transportation and the pressures are going to continue to be there," he added. Morales wants more money from the Congress.

The study recommends lawmakers consider raising gas taxes and dipping into highway reserves to keep road spending up, but there is little support on Capitol Hill for that.

"At the end of the day," said Moretti, "it's the public's willingness to pay for continued improvements in its transportation system."

But others say lawmakers should spend money on smart growth and mass transit.

"We are going down this sort of dead end road trying to build our way out of congestion," said James Corless with the Surface Transportation Policy Board. "We can't do that. We've got to use that [money] more effectively to provide more choices."

Congress will soon take up a six-year reauthorization of the highway bill. There is wide support among lawmakers for road projects back home. But lawmakers in Washington, D.C., and in state legislators will face tough choices ahead in the current budget squeeze.