The Answer to Freeway Congestion? More Freeways

Last week, Gov. Gray Davis of California cut the ribbon on the first section of a 28-mile extension of the Foothill Freeway in the suburbs of this city. Major newspaper stories quoted the governor proclaiming this the last major freeway to be built in the state, and even cited an Automobile Club spokesman who said that we have to look to alternatives to freeways.

The anti-freeway consensus argues that we cannot build our way out of congestion. More freeways will simply attract more driving and pretty soon be just as congested as before. Besides, there’s no place to put them, and the cost would be unaffordable. Better to channel highway tax receipts into mass-transit projects that will get some of us out of our cars and off the freeways.

But we haven’t even tried to add capacity. From 1988 to 1998, according to the California Legislative Analyst’s office, while the state’s population increased by 18%, vehicle miles traveled by car increased by 30% – and mass-transit use (despite new billions in spending on rail systems) remained basically flat. But while demand for driving exploded, just 1% was added to freeway lane-miles during the past decade. No wonder congestion soared from 197,000 daily hours of delay in 1988 to 418,000 hours in 1998.

And California is not done growing. Over the next 20 years, another 15 million people will be born in, or move to, the Golden State. Realistically, they will receive most of their goods by truck and meet most of their needs for travel by car. Yet last year, when Gov. Davis had a one-time opportunity to use what was then a huge state budget surplus to address infrastructure problems, he allocated 68% of the $5.3 billion congestion-relief package to mass-transit projects.

Unfortunately, while mass transit is needed for those who cannot or should not drive, it’s unlikely to be a practical alternative for more than a small fraction of Californians. Our huge metro areas are simply too spread out, with the large majority of work sites and shopping destinations in suburban locations, not traditional downtowns. Thus, a few tens of miles of rail transit, while costing a billion dollars or so, typically attract a much smaller ridership than a pair of new freeway lanes.

California urgently needs to upgrade its freeways – not build more mass-transit boondoggles. The state’s extensive highway and freeway system is reaching the end of its 30-to-40-year design life and needs modernization. Today, some 80% of the state’s transportation spending still goes for highways, but it’s not enough to keep pace even with maintenance and rebuilding. A nationwide study by the Road Information Project ranked California’s pavement conditions as third worst in the country, costing each driver an extra $354 per year in wear and tear.

Why do the billions collected in federal and state fuel taxes do so little? Because gas-tax rates have fallen far behind in real terms. Back in the 1960s, fuel taxes paid by Californians amounted to over 4 cents per vehicle-mile traveled. Today, thanks to more than doubled fuel economy, our much higher nominal gas-tax rates produce little more than 1 cent per vehicle-mile.

Fortunately, there are alternatives on the horizon. Significant new highway projects, which will increase capacity and relieve congestion, are being added in major metro areas abroad. For example, Toronto’s Highway 407 threaded a major new urban toll road through a built-up area without using any land for toll booths or toll plazas – by inventing the world’s first fully automated, open-road toll collection system. Three existing freeways have been linked into a network in Melbourne, Australia, with minimal property taking thanks to a combination of elevated and tunneled construction. In each case, the private sector is designing, financing, building, and operating these projects, charging drivers electronically collected tolls to pay back the investors.

In this country, fast-growing states such as Florida, Texas and Virginia have adopted public-private partnership laws for highways to take advantage of private capital and entrepreneurial innovation. But thus far – despite a once-promising pilot program in the early 1990s – California has virtually ignored this approach.

Yet there is no shortage of billion-dollar expressway projects that could provide much needed new capacity – if only the money could be found. Two examples suffice: A $2 billion toll tunnel linking housing-rich Riverside County with jobs-rich Orange County, going under rather than through the Cleveland National Forest; and a $1.8 billion toll tunnel linking the distant Palmdale airport with Glendale and the rest of the Los Angeles freeway system, cutting the distance and travel time by 40%.

These, and other, projects have been proposed by transportation planners. Yet none is even in the planning stage because of funding shortfalls. However, as an investment banker told me last year, the world is awash in capital for toll road projects – especially in areas of high auto and truck use and strong population growth. That’s certainly an apt description of California, if only elite opinion, and our elected leaders, would overcome their anti-freeway prejudices.

Robert W. Poole Jr. is director of transportation studies and founder of the Reason Foundation.