Opinion Editorial

By Dennis Polhill

The cost of traffic congestion exceeds the cost to eliminate it.

An ongoing project of the Texas Transportation Institute estimates traffic congestion annually. TTI calculated the cost to the U.S. economy at $68 billion in 2000. Because the cost is growing faster than the population, congestion is making Americans worse off. This is more than enough money to add an additional lane to every interstate highway in the United States in each direction. Less extreme proposals could instantly eliminate all traffic congestion. The reason traffic congestion exists is political.

Americans are patient and tolerant. We trust elected officials to be honest, conscientious and diligent; generally, they are. The time grows closer when tolerance for traffic congestion will cease. Perhaps the many failed tax measures in the November 2002 election are a sign of how thin patience is growing. To fix traffic congestion, systemic and political problems must be attacked at their roots.

First, transportation finance is collectivized. Taxes are put into a big pot so smart guys can do the right project in the right place at the right time. The theory sounds good, but the Soviet model has failed miserably in every trial. Expecting a different result is a triumph of hope over experience. Wise public policy recognizes this failing and seeks to decentralize by employing market-driven incentives.

Second, because the bosses of the smart guys are politicians, transportation inevitably becomes politicized. Colorado politicians have determined that nearly 60% of Denver-metro transportation funding over the next 20 years will go to transit. This outlay is expected to increase transit’s market share from 1.53% to 2.23% of total trips. This policy means that traffic congestion and mobility will become much worse. The politicization of transportation leads to the misapplication of limited resources.

Third, the Transportation Industrial Complex, the contractors, consultants, suppliers and bureaucrats, whose unchallenged survival hinges on sustaining the status quo, resists change. Combined with the demagoguery of special interest groups and government agencies, not bound by service or truth, this Complex Plus makes up a formidable political force.

Fourth, some interests intend harm. Injury to consumers, taxation, mobility, environment and economy are “collateral damage” to their mission. Ray Barnhart, former head of the Federal Highway Administration, reflected recently on his 1991 recommendation to President Bush to veto Federal transportation legislation, “if ISTEA becomes law politics, not engineering principles will determine. Congress has given official standing (to groups) not interested in transportation per se, but rather in gaining control of transportation programs in order to require a social agenda.”

There is hope! Reform comes as a byproduct of catastrophe. “A transportation crisis is brewing. Commerce will snarl, costing billions,” said the November 27, 2002 Kiplinger Letter. By 2009 there will be a “12% slower average road speed and about a 10% increase in the average delay.”

Tax subsidies to institutions yield bigger, more bureaucratic, less accountable, and less efficient institutions. Conversely, subsidies to individuals, when appropriate, empower consumers, and create accountability, choice, market growth, competition, lower prices, and innovation. Proof is in the success of the food stamp and G.I. Bill programs.

When groups such as the Progressive Policy Institute, an arm of the Democratic Leadership Council of the Democratic Party, begin to suggest that, “Our nation’s surface transportation system is broken” and fixes must “harness market forces,” then a convergence of thought has begun. If the contemplative elements of both the left and right concur, but the politicians continue to refuse to lead, then is this because solution might diminish their importance?

Certainly, when projects like converting the I-25 High Occupancy Vehicle lanes to High Occupancy Toll lanes (mandated in 1999 by Andrews’ Senate Bill 88) would do no injury, while relieving some traffic congestion and raising revenue, are stalled for years by governments, their true agenda is revealed. Is the stalling-benefit that RTD and the Federal Transit Administration perceive, that a cheap and functional method of solving traffic congestion without tax increases might jeopardize their goal of more taxes and bigger bureaucracies?

Government monopoly of transportation is failing. The sooner this failure is recognized, the sooner leaders can implement innovative systems to increase mobility, job growth, and commercial viability. Those who seek to diminish mobility, strive for the impossible and the undesirable.

The “transportation choice” movement has started. As the term “transportation choice” becomes part of the lexicon, intelligent debate over how to implement and balance the wide variety of alternative possibilities will commence. Let the debate over “transportation choice” begin.

Copyright 2003
The Independence Institute

INDEPENDENCE INSTITUTE is a non-profit, non-partisan Colorado think tank. It is governed by a statewide board of trustees and holds a 501(c)(3) tax exemption from the IRS. Its public policy research focuses on economic growth, education reform, local government effectiveness, and Constitutional rights.

JON CALDARA is President of the Institute.

DENNIS POLHILL is a Senior Fellow at the Independence Institute.

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