Learning to Love Congestion in Portland

Speaking of Portland, looks like they can’t afford to build new roads to help reduce congestion:

Although traffic congestion is hurting businesses throughout the Portland area, transportation officials say they have no money to begin building the new roads or additional lanes that could speed shipments and deliveries. Approximately $630 million is spent on transportation projects and operations in the metropolitan region every year, split almost evenly between road and mass transit projects. But, according to officials, the road money is not even enough to pay all maintenance needs, and most of the transit money cannot simply be shifted to roads because of transportation funding policies.

Randal O’Toole makes an astute observation on this:

Yet they seem to have money to build light-rail lines, streetcar lines, and other transit boondoggles. In 2003, transit carried just 2.3 percent of passenger travel in the Portland area, about 0.9 percent of which was rail and the rest bus. Of course, transit carried virtually none of the region’s freight. Why should the region spend half its money on 2.3 percent of travelers?

Good question. Call me naive, but I believe that most taxpayers would find this a really compelling question with an obvious response — “hmmmm…when you put it that way, spending gobs on transit seems like throwing money into a black hole.” O’Toole adds more:

Before seeking more money from taxpayers, planners should make sure the money they have is spent effectively. They should estimate the benefits and costs of all potential congestion-reducing projects and rank them, funding only those that reduce the most congestion per dollar. But this would rule out the rail lines that Portland planners love, many of which actually increase congestion because they occupy lanes formally open to autos.

Makes a ton of sense, but perhaps too much sense for the planners who’ve invested so much into smart growth and transit-oriented development. Basing spending on performance — performance at reducing congestion, that is — runs counter to the very core of their belief system: transit must be pursued at all costs (literally). For them, reducing congestion is far less important of a goal than reengineering society with the aim of getting citizens to make the “right” transportation choices.