The road building/repair/congestion money sink
Image: an L.A. freeway interchange from above. Credit: Don Kelsen / Los Angeles Times
Smart Growth America came out with a report, Repair Priorities: Transportation spending strategies to save taxpayer dollars and improve roads, which makes the point that the cost of maintaining roads is rising faster than the cost of building them.
This is a kind of extension of the argument put forward in last week's piece in the Wall Street Journal, "How the U.S. Can Improve Transportation Policy," by Robert Puentes, about how the U.S. transportation infrastructure funding agenda isn't prioritized, and is best at funding new road construction regardless of whether or not particular roads should be prioritized and whether or not other transportation needs are more pressing.
Plus, there is an article just about to come out in the American Economic Review, "The Fundamental Law of Road Congestion: Evidence from US cities," which is abstracted thusly:
We investigate the relationship between interstate highways and highway vehicle kilometers traveled (VKT) in US cities. We find that VKT increases proportionately to highways and identify three important sources for this extra VKT: an increase in driving by current residents; an increase in transportation intensive production activity; and an inflow of new residents. The provision of public transportation has no impact on VKT. We also estimate the aggregate city level demand for VKT and find it to be very elastic. We conclude that an increased provision of roads or public transit is unlikely to relieve congestion.
I disagree a little bit with this conclusion, because there is no question that in places like DC and Arlington County Virginia, public transit at least when paired with compact development, absolutely reduces traffic congestion. At all times of day, even during rush periods, if only comparatively. But when you study the top 100 cities, and only a few of them have extensive transit systems, and only a few of them have areas of the region that not only have transit systems but also compact development patterns, it becomes impossible to find a direct connection between transit (and walkability and bikeability) and congestion reduction.
When I was first thinking about this, I was thinking about the old line from In Search of Excellence, "what gets measured, gets done."
Well, what is prioritized funding-wise is what gets built, and as various books such as Asphalt Nation or Getting There: The Epic Struggle Between Road and Rail in the American Century have pointed out, our transportation development and maintenance system is mostly focused on roads and automobility, even though this is an expensive paradigm that doesn't make sense in a lot of places.
FWIW, A. Barton Hinkle, the editorial page editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, has been making this point for a long time, that for every mile of new road that is constructed, future budgetary needs for maintenance ought to increase accordingly.