We Can Build Our Way Out Of Congestion

Tampa-St. Petersburg will see traffic worse than today's Atlanta if we don't act

The Tampa-St. Petersburg metro area is the second most congested in Florida and ranks 20th nationwide when it comes to the most hours stuck in traffic. Trips at rush hour take 33 percent longer than trips during off-peak hours.

But if you think that’s bad, just wait until 2030. After absorbing 800,000 more people and an even larger number of car and truck trips, congestion will be significantly worse. That same trip at rush hour will take 50 percent longer than at off hours, making Tampa’s congestion worse than Atlanta experiences today. What’s supposed to be a 30-minute trip will take 45.

That forecast assumes that the transportation projects in the region’s current long-range plan are implemented. The Tampa transportation plan proposes to spend $7.3 billion over 20 years for highway and transit projects but predicts that delays will increase a whopping 250 percent, from 158,000 hours daily in 2000 to 556,000 hours daily in 2025.

To which a motorist or a taxpayer might well ask: Do you mean that our state and local transportation agencies are going to spend $7 billion over the next 20 years, only to give us significantly worse congestion? Sad to say, the answer is yes.

That is because local transportation planners have bought into the idea that “we can’t build our way out of congestion.” In keeping with trends in many parts of the country, in recent years they have focused more and more on trying to reduce the amount of driving, proposing mass transit systems and high-density housing projects intended to “get people out of their cars.”

Tampa planners cite a goal of “minimizing travel time and delay” yet give it only 16 percent weight in selecting projects. They recognize that the demand for highway travel is greater than the supply of road space, but instead of increasing road space in response to what people want, they hope instead to reduce the demand to fit within the limited available road space.

This is the approach California has been trying for the past 20 years. California stopped building freeways and started pouring billions of dollars into rail transit systems in Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego. Smart-growth land-use planning has been all the rage too.

Unfortunately, people kept moving to California cities and kept on driving. Transit use and carpooling today handle a smaller fraction of trips than they did 20 years ago. The result is that Los Angeles and San Francisco top the national charts in traffic congestion. Other cities that have lately switched to the California model – like Atlanta – have seen their congestion soar as well.

Our research suggests that adding highway capacity is a crucially important part of an effective effort to reduce traffic congestion.

A new Reason Foundation study modeled the hypothetical addition of enough capacity in every U.S. metro area to eliminate the worst congestion by 2030. For the Tampa Bay region, that would require adding 1,288 lane-miles to the existing highway system over the next 25 years – on freeways, toll roads, arterials and local roadways. We estimate the cost of that as $2.4 billion in today’s dollars. That amounts to a bit under $39 per resident per year and is about a third of what the Tampa plan would spend.

Thus Tampa could actually reduce congestion if it chose to do so. That investment would save 63 million hours per year that otherwise would be spent stuck in traffic. The cost – just $1.52 per hour of delay saved – is one-eighth of the minimum cost for light rail proposals.

Where would the new capacity go? While our study did not get into this level of detail, some possibilities include the new beltway proposed by the expressway authority (about 360 lane-miles), as well as tolled express lanes (like those just opened on the Selmon Crosstown Expressway) on congested freeways such as interstates 275, 75 and 4. Many major thoroughfares that serve growing suburbs should be widened to handle the traffic that we know is coming.

The Tampa area is at a crossroads in transportation planning. Pulling one way are those who favor the California model: try to get people out of their cars by diverting transportation funds away from highways and into transit and land-use densification. On the other side are harried commuters just trying to cope.

There is no realistic alternative to highways for personal mobility, goods movement and bus transit, so we need to keep growing the highway system in step with demand for vehicular travel. Cities like Atlanta and Houston are now rethinking their planning to focus more on serious congestion reduction.

The Tampa Bay area is in competition with other cities in Florida and the whole Southeast as a place to live, work and do business. One of the factors that will make a difference in individuals’ and companies’ location choices is mobility: Does the transportation infrastructure permit smooth and reliable delivery of goods, trips to and from work, and personal trips for recreation and tourism? Those metro areas that can offer such mobility will do much better than those whose systems are increasingly gridlocked.

Which future do you want for the Tampa Bay area?

Robert Poole is director of transportation studies at the Reason Foundation. David Hartgen is professor of transportation studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Their new traffic congestion study is available at and Reason’s transportation research and commentary is here.