How Government Wastes Our Time in Travel

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.

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.

Air travel delays, both at airports and in the sky, are in the vicinity of $29 billion per year, according to an academic study funded by the Federal Aviation Administration. Air travelers also spend an estimated 138 million hours a year waiting in Transportation Security Administration airport security screening lines.

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.

For urban congestion, the big change in recent years has been the introduction of express toll lanes in 14 of the 20 most-congested metro areas. Most of the initial projects have involved converting carpool lanes to toll lanes, with variable pricing keeping demand (vehicles per lane per hour) within the capacity of the priced lane, so that you can drive at the speed limit even during rush hours.

The next step, under way in Atlanta, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Houston, Miami, San Diego, San Francisco, and Seattle, is to create entire networks of express toll lanes. 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 such 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.

Relief is also in prospect for many air travelers, now that the TSA has finally (after 10 years) accepted the principle of ‘trusted travelers.’ As put forth shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but rejected by the first several TSA administrators, the idea is that people who are pre-vetted (e.g., passing a background check) are very low-risk and should not have to go through all the post-9/11 security hassles. Last year the current TSA Administrator endorsed the concept and the result was PreCheck, implemented at 40 airports so far. It was initially offered only to high-end members of airline frequent flyer programs, on whom extensive travel histories exist. Members use special checkpoint lanes with basically pre-9/11 screening. TSA is now expanding the program to another 40 airports and will sell memberships to other air travelers who agree to a background check. TSA’s parent agency had previously pioneered a trusted traveler program called Global Entry, which lets air travelers returning from overseas bypass long lines at Immigration if they have passed a background check and obtained a biometric ID card.

But there has been little progress so far in reducing delays to airliners. The greatest delays occur at a handful of airports, especially the three that serve the New York metro area. For various reasons, it has been politically impossible to add runway capacity at Kennedy, LaGuardia, and Newark airports (unlike Chicago, where a major expansion of runways has greatly reduced congestion). Because air travel is so interconnected, long delays at the New York airports ripple through the system, delaying a great many other flights.

When runways cannot be expanded, the best way to reduce congestion is market pricing for runway access. With much higher prices during congested peak periods, airlines will have incentives to save money by some combination of (a) shifting some flights to off-peak times, and (b) using larger planes during peak periods. Incumbent airlines at congested airports have so far fought hard against runway pricing, but former Transportation Secretary Mary Peters changed federal policy to allow airports to do this, so it may be a matter of time until some congested airport bites the bullet and does so.

Air travel delays could also be reduced by modernizing the air traffic control system. Our system still uses largely 1960s concepts and technology, which is so inaccurate that it must provide huge buffer zones around each plane in flight, for safety reasons. GPS-based technology and other enhancements will make it possible to reduce those buffer zones, thereby adding capacity to the airways. Such technology can also be used to increase the hourly capacity of many airport runways. But the Federal Aviation Administration is risk-averse and status-quo oriented. A serious revamp of the air traffic control system will probably require “corporatizing” the system, turning it into a user-supported utility, as has been done in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Germany, and the U.K. with excellent results.

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.