Baltimore and the politics of “planned congestion”

In their book, The Road More Traveled, and in their Reason magazine article earlier this year, my colleagues Ted and Sam describe the transportation planning dysfunction that has taken hold in so many metro areas: automobility and congestion relief are not high on the priority list because planners are preoccupied with policies designed to get people out of their cars. Since people like to drive and have not proven amenable to playing along with the planners’ charade, our public policies and spending priorities in many metro areas are just making traffic worse (i.e., “planned congestion” is the inevitable result). For a refresher, here’s Ted and Sam on the Met Council, the transportation planning body for the Twin Cities:

During the next 10 years, the Met Council is planning to invest $4.2 billion in the highway system and $1.4 billion in transit facilities. In other words, the region’s primary transportation planning agency has decided to spend 25 percent of its budget on mass transit. But transit accounts for just 2.5 percent of all trips in the region, whether they’re for pleasure, taking kids to school, going to the supermarket, or commuting to the office. Less than 5 percent of the Minneapolis-St. Paul region’s population uses public transit to get to work, and that share is declining: According to U.S. Census statistics, the number of passengers using mass transit increased slightly in absolute terms between 1990 and 2000, but its market share fell by 12 percent. The Met Council hopes to double bus capacity by 2030 and greatly expand its light rail line and commuter train system. It also intends to boost transit use from 74.9 million passenger trips per year to 150 million by 2030, even though the current trend projects virtually no growth in use and even though transit lost market share from 1990 to 2000, according to the Census Bureau’s decennial data. The Met Council expects 574,625 new jobs to be created in the area by 2030. But even though the vast majority of Minneapolis-St. Paul’s population travels to work by car, the planners improbably expect per capita road use to decline. […] The net result? Without road improvements, highway congestion is expected to increase from 28 hours annually per traveler in 2001 to 40 hours in 2030. With the improvements, congestion should “moderate” to 37 hours in 2030. Congestion would be 32 percent higher than in 2001, rather than 42 percent higher without the improvements. “Just to keep pace with these [highway] needs,” the council’s 2030 Regional Development Framework says, “would add $4.7 billion to current plans for the next decade” above the currently planned spending. […] To make “more effective use” of the road system, the Met Council believes it has to get people out of their cars. That’s unfortunate, especially since the agency admits congestion is many residents’ “No. 1 livability issue.” The council is spending 25 percent of its transportation funds on a solution that, at most, might improve the quality of life for 5 percent of the population, and it will do nothing for people like Sue. Even transit users might not be better off, since they will be spending more time commuting than if they used a car. Drivers will definitely be worse off. They will be spending much more time stuck in traffic in 2030 than they did in 2006. If Minneapolis has one of the best planning agencies, what are the others like?

I guess that we’ll know about Baltimore soon enough. A current stir over Baltimore’s metropolitan transportation plan offers an insight into the politics at play behind these sorts of planning decisions. So let me get this straight–in a metro with a 2.1% transit market share, the planners are suggesting that 29% of spending be set aside for transit projects, and the transit advocates are up in arms because it’s not at least 50%?? I was still choking on the 29% figure–eerily reminiscent of the Twin Cities example–when I read that transit advocates wanted even more. This is so pathetically dim-witted that it would almost be laughable–if these weren’t real tax dollars, real lives, real mobility, and real prosperity at stake.

Leonard Gilroy is Senior Managing Director of the Pension Integrity Project at Reason Foundation, a nonprofit think tank advancing free minds and free markets. The Pension Integrity Project assists policymakers and other stakeholders in designing, analyzing and implementing public sector pension reforms.