The federal government has failed miserably at keeping a steady stream of reliable funding headed to the states for roads. It’s time for Washington to get out of the game. In the past year, lawmakers couldn’t even put together a whole highway bill, barely cobbling together enough money to cover two years when past measures have spanned five to six years. (The last full highway bill passed in 2005.)
Meanwhile, traffic is getting steadily worse. The most recent analysis from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute found that, nationwide, the average commuter endured 34 hours of delay in a single year, up from 14 hours in 1982. What’s more, those delays cost $100 billion in lost productivity, the researchers say.
The New Deal-era notion that roads should be free is outdated. They aren’t free in reality, of course, but if travelers see them as such, they will use them without regard to the consequences—congestion, road deterioration, and pollution. The current federal payment system (taxpayer dollars) is so removed from the product (smooth roads and transit options) that drivers aren’t invested in finding solutions. They’re left to honking their horns.
Some options to reduce traffic are costly, but others can be implemented with a can of paint. New York City has seen its automobile traffic thin with an increased emphasis on pedestrian and bike paths. Car-culture areas such as Los Angeles and Northern Virginia are experimenting with variable-priced tolls that guarantee drivers a certain speed. The price goes up when congestion gets worse.
The common thread is that decisions are made on a local level. In Denver, city planners went to neighborhood representatives to divvy up their streets into parking areas, bike lanes, mixed-use lanes, and green medians. Residents and business owners did the prioritizing. City officials simply followed their directions. “Local government has to make the choices,” says Gideon Berger, an urban planner who headed the Denver project. “Local government has citation and permitting authority. The role of the private sector is so important.”
The private sector is taking the lead in building new toll roads to manage traffic, but the threshold challenge is convincing drivers they need to pay. (Take the underused Inter-County Connector in the Maryland exurbs around Washington, for instance.) The International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association is looking to shift public opinion on that front. According to the group’s CEO, Pat Jones, roads should not be considered any different than basic utilities. “The only difference between roads and smartphones, electricity, and water is that it is very easy for the provider of the smartphone, the water, and the electricity to shut it off if you don’t pay,” he says.
Shutting down roads is a little harder than turning off phone service. And ensuring that citizens have access to every place they need to go should be a national goal. But drivers, local businesses, and local governments are in a far better position than the feds to determine how to get there—and how much travelers should pay for the ride.