NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

How Government Wastes Our Time in Travel

November 12, 2013

Time is the ultimate scarce resource. Unfortunately, Americans waste a huge amount of time every year as they commute to and from work, and also when they travel by air, says Robert Poole, the Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow and Director of Transportation Policy at the Reason Foundation.

  • The Texas A&M Transportation Institute estimates the direct cost of urban traffic congestion at $121 billion per year (and that is just an estimate of people's time and excess fuel burned in stop-and-go congestion).
  • The full economic costs of traffic congestion are about twice that much, including lower urban area productivity and higher freight costs.

A common factor in these cases is that the infrastructure involved is owned and operated by government agencies. For various reasons, they don't seem to take seriously the enormous burden that their delays and congestion impose on us as individual travelers (and on the U.S. economy). Relief from congestion and delays can only come about via changes in government policy, such as implementing market pricing and in some cases privatizing the transportation infrastructure. The good news is that steps in these directions are occurring. But the bad news is that so far they have only scratched the surface.

  • The next step, under way in Atlanta, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Houston, Miami, San Diego, San Francisc, and Seattle, is to create entire networks of express toll lanes.
  • Such a network lets people make faster and more-reliable trips from anywhere to anywhere in the metro area -- and that also makes possible region-wide express bus service.

Building these networks involves adding new lanes and connectors, which will cost tens of billions of dollars, and require financing via toll revenue bonds. That has opened the door to investors and global toll road companies, under long-term public-private partnerships. Global infrastructure funds are ready and willing to invest in such projects, but we are at least a decade away from the first urban express toll networks being in place and operational.

The bottom line is that major transportation infrastructure owned and operated by governments has given short shrift to the huge burdens of wasted time imposed on all of us. The best hope for relief is to convert that infrastructure into customer-friendly utilities that use market pricing to balance demand with capacity.

Source: Robert Poole, "How Government Wastes Our Time in Travel," Reason Foundation, October 30, 2013.


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