The Public Purpose
Number 75 - May 2004

Spending Highway Money on Soundwalls and Transit Doesn't Reduce Traffic Congestion

By Wendell Cox

The anti-mobility crowd has been having a grand old time over a recent study by RAND and Brookings Institution researchers (Chad Shirley and Clifford Winston) on highway spending productivity. The study concludes that highway spending in the United States achieves little in economic productivity. Virginia Postrel reported further in The New York Times that an unpublished paper by Clifford Winston demonstrates that only 8 cents of congestion cost is reduced per dollar of highway spending. Smart growth advocates and new urbanists, however, have mischaracterized the research as indicating that highway spending is unproductive and does not reduce congestion.

I, for one, am surprised at the finding that we get 8 cents of congestion cost reduction for each dollar spent in the name of highways. Note the terminology "in the name of." Is it surprising that millions of dollars spent on soundwalls has not reduced traffic congestion? What about the undersea museum in Texas or the New York courthouse? What about the billions spend to rebuild and beautify urban freeways without adding an ounce of capacity? Has no one noticed that the country continues to grow, that commerce continues to expand and that traffic volumes continue to rise?

Just calling something highway spending does not make it highway spending. And, there is an important difference between spending on highways and spending with the intention of improving productivity or reducing traffic congestion. Dr. Ronald D. Utt of the Heritage Foundation has rightly noted that the federal highway program is more about spending than it is about transportation. Or as he put it in a recent memorandum to members of the Congressional conference committee, the principal difference between the House of Representatives version of the highway bill and the Senate version is simply the amount of "misspending."

It is, of course, possible for highway spending to be productive or to reduce traffic congestion. To do so, however, requires doing things that can achieve those goals. It begins with capacity. But since the 1991 highway-transit reauthorization, urban transportation policy has been captured by interests that are demand managing us into gridlock. Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) were given authority that was taken away from state highway departments. They didn't just let things get worse, they made them get worse. Defying logic and their own modeling, they pumped money into urban rail systems that didn't even "pencil out, much less reduce traffic congestion when actually built. They spent billions rebuilding urban freeways according to decades old designs and ignored the potential for expansion, even within the same rights of way. MPOs operated under an ideology that suggested that if we just make congestion bad enough, people will get out of their cars and into transit. Into transit that takes twice as long, even when traffic congestion gets bad? Into transit that doesn't take them where they want to go? Tooth-fairy based planning principles such as these need to be discarded before they do irreparable harm to our urban areas, our economy and the income of urban households. The behind the scenes mantra of the MPO seems to have been "billions for highways, but not one cent for reducing congestion." They haven't even tried to reduce traffic congestion.

The result is that little or no urban roadway capacity has been built, much has been wasted on urban rail programs that don't even contribute to reducing traffic congestion in computer models, and traffic has gotten a lot worse.

It is time to "get real" about urban transportation policy. There is no transit system conceived, much less built, that can provide automobile competitive mobility throughout the modern urban area, whether Phoenix, Portland, Perth or Paris. There is no soundwall that will reduce traffic congestion and no new roadways that do not add capacity will reduce congestion. The competitiveness of US urban areas is being eroded daily by excessive and unnecessary traffic congestion. It is time to start spending highway money on reducing congestion and improving productivity. The Shirley-Winston research simply demonstrates what had already become clear--- that you cannot reduce traffic congestion unless you try.

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