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.

Robert Poole is director of transportation policy and Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow at Reason Foundation. Poole, an MIT-trained engineer, has advised the Ronald Reagan, the George H.W. Bush, the Clinton, and the George W. Bush administrations.

Surface Transportation

In the field of surface transportation, Poole has advised the Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Transit Administration, the White House Office of Policy Development, National Economic Council, Government Accountability Office, and state DOTs in numerous states.

Poole's 1988 policy paper proposing privately financed toll lanes to relieve congestion directly inspired California's landmark private tollway law (AB 680), which authorized four pilot toll projects including the successful 91 Express Lanes in Orange County. More than 20 other states and the federal government have since enacted similar public-private partnership legislation. In 1993, Poole oversaw a study that coined the term HOT (high-occupancy toll) Lanes, a term which has become widely accepted since.

California Gov. Pete Wilson appointed Poole to the California's Commission on Transportation Investment and he also served on the Caltrans Privatization Advisory Steering Committee, where he helped oversee the implementation of AB 680.

From 2003 to 2005, he was a member of the Transportation Research Board's special committee on the long-term viability of the fuel tax for highway finance. In 2008 he served as a member of the Texas Study Committee on Private Participation in Toll Roads, appointed by Gov. Rick Perry. In 2009, he was a member of an Expert Review Panel for Washington State DOT, advising on a $1.5 billion toll mega-project. In 2010, he was a member of the transportation transition team for Florida's Governor-elect Rick Scott. He is a member of two TRB standing committees: Congestion Pricing and Managed Lanes.


Poole is a member of the Government Accountability Office's National Aviation Studies Advisory Panel and he has testified before the House and Senate's aviation subcommittees on numerous occasions. Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Poole consulted the White House Domestic Policy Council and the leadership of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee.

He has also advised the Federal Aviation Administration, Office of the Secretary of Transportation, White House Office of Policy Development, National Performance Review, National Economic Council, and the National Civil Aviation Review Commission on aviation issues. Poole is a member of the Critical Infrastructure Council of the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation and of the Air Traffic Control Association.

Poole was among the first to propose the commercialization of the U.S. air traffic control system, and his work in this field has helped shape proposals for a U.S. air traffic control corporation. A version of his corporation concept was implemented in Canada in 1996 and was more recently endorsed by several former top FAA administrators.

Poole's studies also launched a national debate on airport privatization in the United States. He advised both the FAA and local officials during the 1989-90 controversy over the proposed privatization of Albany (NY) Airport. His policy research on this issue helped inspire Congress' 1996 enactment of the Airport Privatization Pilot Program and the privatization of Indianapolis' airport management under Mayor Steve Goldsmith.

General Background

Robert Poole co-founded the Reason Foundation with Manny Klausner and Tibor Machan in 1978, and served as its president and CEO from then until the end of 2000. He was a member of the Bush-Cheney transition team in 2000. Over the years, he has advised the Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and George W. Bush administrations on privatization and transportation policy.

Poole is credited as the first person to use the term "privatization" to refer to the contracting-out of public services and is the author of the first-ever book on privatization, Cutting Back City Hall, published by Universe Books in 1980. He is also editor of the books Instead of Regulation: Alternatives to Federal Regulatory Agencies (Lexington Books, 1981), Defending a Free Society (Lexington Books, 1984), and Unnatural Monopolies (Lexington Books, 1985). He also co-edited the book Free Minds & Free Markets: 25 Years of Reason (Pacific Research Institute, 1993).

Poole has written hundreds of articles, papers, and policy studies on privatization and transportation issues. His popular writings have appeared in national newspapers, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Forbes, and numerous other publications. He has also been a guest on network television programs such as Good Morning America, NBC's Nightly News, ABC's World News Tonight, and the CBS Evening News. Poole writes a monthly column on transportation issues for Public Works Financing.

Poole earned his B.S. and M.S. in mechanical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and did graduate work in operations research at New York University.

David T. Hartgen

David T. Hartgen is Emeritus Professor of Transportation Studies at UNC Charlotte. Professor Hartgen is widely known in transportation circles. He established UNC Charlotte's Center for Interdisciplinary Transportation Studies in 1989 and now teaches and conducts research in transportation policy and planning. He is the author of about 330 studies on a wide variety of topics in transportation policy and planning, is the U.S. editor of the international academic journal Transportation, and is active in professional organizations. He is a frequent media interviewee in local and national outlets. Before coming to Charlotte he directed the statistics, traffic forecasting and analysis functions of the New York State Department of Transportation and served as a Policy Analyst at the Federal Highway Administration. He holds engineering degrees from Duke University and Northwestern University. He has taught at SUNY Albany, Union College and Syracuse University and lectures widely. His studies of the comparative performance of transportation systems have received nation-wide attention. He has also recently completed a major component of Reason's Mobility Study that estimates the cost of significantly reducing road congestion nation-wide, a comprehensive study of congestion in North Carolina, and a comparative study of the 50 state highway systems . His current research includes an assessment of the economic impact of highways in South Carolina, a review of transportation performance for the provinces of Canada, a national study of business impacts of congestion, and an assessment of congestion in mid-sized cities.