Traffic snarl: Which way out?

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Today, Balaker and Reed weigh options for reducing traffic. Previously they debated road-building, subway extension, and how to reduce congestion Later this week they'll focus on transit funding, building roads and rail, alternatives to traffic, and crazy ideas to fix the traffic problem.

Pay as you goBy Ted Balaker
Bart,

Angelenos could bank on rail transit and go through the same old Groundhog Day routine of expressing shock when the latest rail line costs more (Blue Line cost escalation: 700%); does less (Red Line hasn't reached half its daily ridership projections); and takes longer to finish than originally advertised (back in 1980, Prop A money was supposed to buy us 11 lines). Or we could snap out of it and realize that strategic road building offers more congestion-relief bang for the buck.

But too often the discussion gets muddled because folks assume that all kinds of transportation are funded the same way. Talk of spending slips into talk of something very different -- subsidies. A subsidy is the difference between the revenue a mode generates and what the government actually spends. Money spent on public transit is almost entirely subsidy (remember, L.A.'s rail riders pay only 3 percent of the overall cost of their trips), but motorists pay for most of what they use, mainly via fuel taxes. (For the federal-level scoop, go here; for the bigger-picture scoop go here.)

Let's move toward a user-pays system that minimizes all subsidies. (Ideally, we'd support the needy directly with vouchers rather than funneling subsidies through the wasteful Rube Goldberg contraptions we call transit agencies).

Toll roads are all about the user-pays structure. Only those who use them pay for them. And tolls also offer a double-whammy of congestion relief: They fund worthy projects and manage traffic flow. Private investors issue bonds that are paid off by motorists who choose to pay for the service. More than a decade's worth of experience has revealed variable rate tolling, in which the price of the toll goes up and down with the flow of traffic, as the world's greatest congestion-buster.

Places like Orange County, San Diego, and Minneapolis have facilities—often called High Occupancy/Toll or HOT Lanes—that use variable tolling to keep traffic flowing briskly any time of day. HOT Lanes run parallel to regular lanes, so motorists can take 'em or leave 'em. Folks across the economic spectrum use and like HOT Lanes, and L.A. could get privately financed HOT Lanes all its own if local officials would pester state legislators to pass a law allowing for their creation. (And pols, don't let Lou Dobbs-style fist-shakers cow you; surveys frequently show that people prefer tolls to taxes.)

And how about paying more attention to a quiet success story? From 1980 to 2000 only one commute mode other than solo driving gained market share—telecommuting. Since then it's become even more popular, and why not? Unlike nearly everything else urban planners try to force-feed us, telecommuting passes the "give 'em something better" test. Telecommuting can compete with solo driving because it can offer something cars can't—the instant commute. Certain forms of unfriendly policies, such as zoning ordinances against home-based businesses, can slow telecommuting's progress. But this bottom-up congestion-buster emerged without government assistance (imagine: all that growth with no public subsidies), and it will continue to grow because it's buoyed by societal trends (like always-improving technology and the ongoing shift to a knowledge-based economy) that are mightier than public policy.

Ted Balaker is a policy analyst at Reason Foundation and co-author of the book The Road More Traveled: Why the Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think and What We Can Do About It (Rowman & Littlefield 2006).


Choose your tripBy Bart Reed
Ted,

I love the anti-choice dictate you want to force upon us. Transportation has never been, nor will ever be, a one-size fits all solution. A rural environment in West Texas, for example, will do better with cars and roads, but an urban environment will need rail when and where large freeways cannot be realistically built.

When surface and residential streets are overburdened with cars, one would conclude a high-capacity highway would be in order. Similarly, when a bus corridor is overloaded with commuters, a rail operation with higher capacity is equally needed. Streets feed into freeways, and buses feed into rail lines. Ultimately, however, which system is most capable of moving the largest number of people in a reliable fashion given limited resources?

An urban freeway can carry 1,500 per hour per lane during rush hour, whereas light rail lines like our Blue Line can carry 6,600 people per hour. Highway construction is not effective if capacity growth cannot exceed traffic demand. Moreover, highways experience diminishing returns as capacity is added over time. Rail can help move larger numbers of people where freeways cannot.

Much discussion has been spent pitting buses against rail, where you as a transit critic love pointing out that transit ridership is on the decline nationwide, when in fact it is growing at a faster rate than car travel, largely because of new rail lines. You allege that rail steals public dollars and ridership from bus service, when in fact rail service increases bus patronage.

Methods that merely prolong our use of private transportation are just as problematic. As an avid supporter of new toll roads and high-occupancy toll lanes on existing freeways, you speculate that tolls may hold the promise of relegating the true cost of highway maintenance to the customer, which would surely discourage auto use even more. Yet recent horror stories about toll road agencies charging exuberant fines to users show that they promise to replace time lost in traffic with time lost in court.

Contrary to what you believe, federal funds allotted to road projects pay 80% to 90% of project costs but pay only 50% to 60% toward transit project costs. Naturally, states and cities build transportation projects based upon available funding. As a result, cities are clamoring for an ever-shrinking percentage of funds for transit. Citizens in Los Angeles and elsewhere voted to tax themselves to obtain matching grants for transit projects. (Note that many of these taxes have highway and bus elements as well, so money for various transportation improvements would also be available.)

Telecommuting, bicycling and other forms of alternatives to traditional commuting can also help, but at this time it is not realistic to expect these alternatives to carry the load of either automobile or transit commuting. However, the more alternatives we offer commuters, the more likely we can solve our traffic problems.

After fifty years of overemphasis on automobile transportation, we need some balance with mass transit as the suburbs themselves become more "urban". We need to give commuters a choice. People continue to ask for rail and they want it now.

Bart Reed is the executive director of The Transit Coalition, a Sylmar based non-profit dealing with issues of transportation, mobility and land use planning.

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