Improving Transportation for All and Not Just the Few

A look into U.S. metropolitan citiesâ?? disproportionate transportation spending

Fairness is a hot topic these days. Anger over crony “capitalist” schemes using government policies that benefit only the few at the cost of the many is cutting across party lines. Despite this frustration, unfair policies abound, often with feeble justification.

Transportation policies are great examples of policymakers’ unfair use of taxpayers’ money. Take a look at the table below which gives data for a few metro areas in the United States. For starters, notice the percentage of transportation spending devoted to public transit relative to the percentage of expected use of that public transit. How can anyone think it fair or even wise to spend on average 25-70 percent of transportation spending on a public system that will, at best, carry only 5-8.5 percent of all metro area travel? This also means planning to spend only 30-75 percent of the money on the transportation system carrying close to 90 percent of travel – the roads.

Disproportionate transportation spending in metro areas

That kind of lopsided spending is outrageously unfair. Why should less than 10 percent of the people in a metro area claim 50, 60, or even 70 percent of transportation resources? And lest you think this disproportionate spending is about providing transportation for the poor, keep in mind that most of the transit money these cities plan to spend will go to rail transit, mainly used by the middle class, while local governments continue to slash bus service which is mainly used by the poor.

This division of resources is unsustainable. The roads carry the majority of commuters, including the buses used by the poor. But the roads are being systematically underfunded in these metro areas, allowed to deteriorate, and are not being expanded to keep up with growth in travel.

And you can see the results in the last two columns in the chart above. In every metro area, congestion will get worse with current plans. Could there be a connection between spending most of the money on a minority of travelers and worsening congestion? Yes, there is.

These metro area governments, along with those in the nation’s other major metro areas, each plan to spend tens of billions of dollars on transportation over the next 20 years as they predict congestion will become worse.

If the school system came to us and said “we plan to spend tens of billions of dollars over the next 20 years, and school test scores will still go down,” would we accept that?

If the police force came to us and said “we plan to spend tens of billions of dollars over the next 20 years, and crime will still go up,” would we accept that?

So why do we accept governments planning for failure with tens of billions of dollars of transportation spending from our taxes?

It is time taxpayers start demanding cities and states quit planning for failure and that local governments stop spending a large chunk of transportation funding on a minority of commuters. It is time to start building transportation networks in our major metro areas that improve mobility for everyone and provide better roads and create better transit with less congestion.

What would that entail? Well, it is complex. For insights on how to accomplish this, check out Reason Foundation’s Galvin Mobility Project for research on solving congestion, with specific mobility plans for Atlanta and Lee County, Fla. Some key elements to these plans include:

  • Add HOT (High Occupancy Toll) lanes to the freeway network. Sometimes called managed lanes or express lanes, these lanes allow buses and carpools to go free, and charge others a toll to use them. They are priced high enough so that they remain free-flowing even during rush hour.
  • Add express buses or Bus Rapid Transit that can use the HOT lanes as a way to provide faster transit services.
  • Improve the major boulevards to provide better mobility between neighboring parts of town. For starters this means signal light synchronization. And removing signals from some selected arterials in each direction by building queue duckers or flyovers (under or overpasses for the middle lanes) for through traffic. Those may be tolled.
  • Identify additional freeway segments or connections in the freeway network and build them as toll tunnels. Analysis for several such projects shows that toll revenues can pay much of the costs and provide huge benefits in return for the balance provided from transportation funds.

Reason Foundation’s analysis of Atlanta and Lee County, Fla., along with several other major metro areas, shows that these approaches would actually reduce congestion while spending roughly the same percentage of transportation funds. Less congestion and more choices for travelers — what’s not to like? And why isn’t this the plan for these cities already?

Adrian Moore, Ph.D., is vice president of policy at Reason Foundation.