NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Fixing America's Freeways

February 24, 2012

Major American metropolitan areas face significant issues in terms of transportation in the face of suburbanization.  As more workers commute to work, placing greater stress on transportation infrastructure, congestion increases and economic losses become significant, says Robert Poole, director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation.

  • The Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) estimates that in current dollars the traffic penalty rose from $24 billion in 1982 to $115 billion in 2009.
  • The average urban commuter wastes 34 hours a year in rush-hour congestion today, compared with just 14 hours in 1982.
  • This figure increases further in specific metro areas that have faced increased growth and dwindling infrastructure investment: Los Angeles faced 63 hours of waste, for example.
  • Costs continue if losses due to limited "opportunity circles" are incorporated: the chief economist at the U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that, because workers cannot travel easily to jobs that best suit their skills, the economic cost is double the $115 billion figure.

The primary reason that congestion has become such a significant issue in recent years is because the population of major metropolitan areas has continued to grow rapidly while capacity has remained stagnant.

  • Costs of building new freeways have increased as the leeway granted to builders to demolish entire neighborhoods has been largely rescinded.
  • Additionally, environmental regulations impose additional expense on proposed projects.
  • Finally, the belief has been widely accepted that expanded road capacity will simply induce those who choose not to drive to start driving, making the effort futile.

In order to bring about modernized roadways in sufficient capacity, lawmakers must accept a paradigm shift away from viewing roadways as a classic public good.  Instead, they should harness the power of the private sector to address this issue.

  • Technological advancements that allow easy tracking of roadway users without tollbooths make private-sector construction even more viable than it once was.
  • Allowing private-sector investment taps a new source of funding, which the financial firm Probitas Partners estimated to be close to $200 billion in 2011.
  • Numerous successful projects, including I-635 in Dallas, the Capital Beltway in Virginia, and SR 91 freeway in California, demonstrate the flexibility and adaptive capabilities of the private sector for solving the chronic congestion problem.

Source: Robert Poole, "Fixing America's Freeways," Reason Magazine, March 2012.

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