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Clogged Arteries
We could solve the traffic mess. Here's why we haven't.

By Fred Hiatt
Monday, February 26, 2007

Imagine your county supervisor or state delegate telling you, "I know your schools are overcrowded. Too bad."

Or: "We could build classrooms to replace the portables, but then more children would move into the neighborhood, so why bother?"

Unimaginable, right? And yet that's essentially what we hear all the time about overcrowded roads. In fact, the challenge of traffic is not by its nature more intractable than that of school crowding, but -- as the continuing disagreement between the General Assembly and governor in Virginia shows -- it is far harder to address.

One reason is the myths that have grown up around the issue of congestion -- chief among them that it cannot be fixed.

Another is a well-organized constituency less interested in solving the problem than in using it for other ends.

And a third -- an obstacle that contains within it the seeds of possible salvation -- is the fact that any real answer will be two-pronged, with one of the prongs offending the right and the other just as suspect to the left.

A useful debunking of the myths associated with traffic is provided by Ted Balaker and Sam Staley of the Reason Foundation in their recent book, "The Road More Traveled," from which I stole the overcrowded-schools analogy. Traffic is "fiercer than ever," they say, "but that's not because congestion can't be beat. It's because our leaders stopped fighting it."

They note that when the interstate system was mostly built out in 1980, congestion was reasonably controlled. But between 1980 and 2004, urban driving (measured in vehicle miles) increased by 168 percent, while urban road miles grew by just 51 percent.

In Virginia, vehicle miles increased 79 percent in the past two decades, according to Bob Chase of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, while the roadway system grew 7 percent.

Not surprisingly, the roads got clogged. At the same time, as Balaker and Staley show, the cities here and abroad that did a better job of matching road construction to population growth have less congestion as a result.

They didn't "pave over" their entire metropolises or destroy their environments, either, despite the fears of environmentalists who in many cases would rather force people out of their cars than solve the problem.

There is a place for mass transit and "smart growth" -- encouraging dense settlement around subway stops and work centers -- in dealing with congestion. But most people (in Europe as well as in "car-crazy" America, by the way) want to live in suburbs, and most need and want their cars. Mass transit accounts for 1.5 percent of all trips in the United States; you could (and I would say should) invest heavily in bus and rail lines, but you would still need new roads.

In fact, mobility is good -- for the economy, for people's personal lives and even for the environment. Rush-hour drivers in the Washington area alone wasted 88 million gallons of fuel in 2003 (the last year for which estimates are available), according to the Texas Transportation Institute. Overall, congestion cost Americans $60 billion that year -- and it's only gone up since.

Studies show that it would not be prohibitively expensive to ease that congestion, but it would be expensive enough that the money has to come from two sources. Some would have to come from sustainable, predictable sources of state revenue, such as gas taxes. This is what conservatives, in particular Republicans in Virginia's General Assembly, have been loath to admit, but without it, the state will soon run out of construction funds altogether or have to start raiding the school and health kitties.

Some would have to come from private firms building new roads or road lanes and then recouping their investments by charging tolls. This makes liberals uneasy, since it points to a future in which public goods that have traditionally been free -- and, ideally, paid for through progressive taxation -- become costly and burdensome, especially for the poor.

There's no magic formula to decide which public services should be fee-based; most of us wouldn't want turnstiles in front of neighborhood playgrounds or parking meters lining suburban cul-de-sacs. Yet assigning directly to drivers some of the costs they impose in pollution and congestion is fair and likely to influence behavior in a positive way.

Here's the good news: The transportation package approved by legislators in Richmond this past weekend, though inadequate, shows that politicians realize voters won't accept do-nothing any longer.

And the Republicans' grudging acceptance of new taxes, albeit regional only, along with Maryland Democrats' grudging acceptance of tolls on a new highway connecting Interstates 95 and 270, points to a possible right-left bargain that might be powerful enough to overcome the NIMBY-green coalition: Raise some taxes, levy some tolls -- and actually build some roads.

fredhiatt@washpost.com

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