Snarl⁠i⁠ng Traff⁠i⁠c—Damag⁠i⁠ng Gr⁠i⁠dlock

By: The James Madison Institute / 2011



By Robert F. Sanchez, JMI Policy Director
There’s food for thought – and cause for concern — in the 2011 Urban Mobility Report just released by Texas A&M University’s Texas Transportation Institute (TTI). The annual study tracks traffic congestion in and around the nation’s largest cities, and the news is not good:

The amount of delay endured by the average commuter was 34 hours, up from 14 hours in 1982.
The cost of congestion is more than $100 billion, nearly $750 for every commuter in the U.S.
“Rush hour” is six hours of not rushing anywhere.
Congestion is becoming a bigger problem outside of “rush hour,” with about 40 percent of the delay occurring in the mid-day and overnight hours, creating an increasingly serious problem for businesses that rely on efficient production and deliveries.

The study also warns that “by 2015, the cost of gridlock will rise from $101 billion to $133 billion – more than $900 for every commuter and the amount of wasted fuel will jump from 1.9 billion gallons to 2.5 billion gallons – enough to fill more than 275,000 gasoline tanker trucks.” Failing to keep up with the nation’s infrastructure needs is not only an inconvenience and a safety hazard; it’s also a drag on the economy because it snarls the avenues of commerce as well as the commuters’ routes to and from their jobs.Conversely, the study points out, in the 1960s “the nation experienced its longest uninterrupted expansion in history, fueled in part by federal investment in the Interstate Highway System,” which “grew rapidly from the late 1950s to the mid 1980s, and the U.S. economy grew along with it. Since then, growth in the interstate system has virtually stopped.” As a result of this halt, TTI researcher David Ellis noted, “The only way U.S. companies have been able to keep their products competitive in the face of increasing traffic congestion and rising transportation costs is to squeeze every ounce of efficiency they can out of their supply chain. But there is a limit to efficiency and without additional transportation capacity, transportation costs will increase significantly. The result will be higher prices and lost jobs.”Among the nuggets in the 147-page report: Paradoxically, perhaps, the metropolitan areas with the worst traffic congestion – Washington, D.C., New York City, and Chicago, among them — are those with highly developed (and very expensive) systems of public transportation. Moreover, this kind of intra-city congestion is not going to be relieved by costly inter-city projects such as California’s high-speed-rail boondoggle, which will only serve to divert funds from useful infrastructure improvements that might actually have an impact on traffic congestion.Meanwhile, left unaddressed is why “growth in the interstate system has virtually stopped,” even though there are conspicuous gaps in the system and the nation’s traffic topography has changed. Moreover, the argument that our nation can no longer afford to build toll-free highways begs the question of how the federal government — in partnership with the states — was able to undertake building the interstate system, almost entirely toll-free, beginning in the 1950s, when the nation’s economy was much smaller (and much poorer) than it is now. Of course, this was before federal and state governments strayed from their core mission, which has long included public works, and instead got drawn into a phony “war on poverty.” That “war,” in turn, has led to the creation of a costly welfare state in which millions of serfs are now dependent on a government whose profligacy means that it must now borrow 40 cents of each dollar it spends.At any rate, perhaps the TTI report’s finding that the nation’s worst traffic congestion is in metropolitan Washington, D.C., is a symbolic reminder of how dysfunctional the federal government has become. When President Obama complains about “gridlock,” he’s not expressing concern about your commute. However, let’s hope that the bureaucrats who toil in our nation’s capital and are now spending an average of 74 hours a year caught in traffic delays as compared to, say, Miami’s mere 38 hours – will use some of that time to envision a better solution, including a back-to-the-future look at expanding our nation’s interstate system, a traffic solution that worked.