In a potentially useful coincidence, the General Assembly was madly amending Governor Bob McDonnell’s transportation tax plan yesterday just as the Texas Transportation Institute prepared to release its 2012 Urban Mobility Report (UMR), the nation’s most authoritative assessment of the cost of traffic congestion. Let us hope that Virginia legislators pause from their frenetic activity long enough to absorb the implications of the study.
Here’s how the Institute summarized its congestion-related findings in a press release issued this morning: “Traffic congestion in U.S. cities has remained relatively stable in recent years and continues to underscore the link between traffic and the economy, according to the UMR. As the nation’s job picture has slowly improved, some congestion measures in 2011 were generally comparable to the year before.”
Now, take a look at numbers for specific metropolitan regions. While traffic in the Richmond region has rebounded to pre-recession levels, Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads haven’t come close. In contrast to previous recessions when congestion costs blasted through recessions and kept on trucking, the cost ascribed to lost time and wasted gasoline consumption has barely budged in those two regions since the recession. The change is all the more remarkable for the Washington region, which, thanks to strong federal government spending, skated through the downturn almost unscathed.
Let me repeat myself for the umpteenth time: Growth and development have reached a major inflection point: The momentum is shifting back to the urban core as households seek walkable, bikable and transit-friendly communities that provide a transportation alternative to the automobile. People are driving less not only because some of them are jobless but because they are finding ways to reduce their driving. As can be seen in the chart above, based on TTI data, the downturn in congestion costs began before the commencement of the 2007 recession.
Even as Vehicle Miles Traveled stagnates, NoVa and Hampton Roads are benefiting from some of the biggest mega-projects in Virginia history. Northern Virginia is on track to extend Metrorail service to the Tysons-Dulles corridor, while Capital Beltway Express has just opened new express lanes for Interstate 495 and now is building express lanes for Interstate 95 as far south as Fredericksburg. Meanwhile, later in the decade, completion of the Midtown Tunnel/Downtown Tunnel project will ameliorate the worst congestion in Hampton Roads and the US. 460 Connector will provide a safety valve for the overloaded Interstate 64.
There is no denying that Virginia needs more money to maintain its transportation system and make prudent new investments when the return on investment justifies it. Without raising revenue, not only will state construction funding dry up but we even may experience shortfalls in maintenance funding toward the end of the decade. But there is no justification for the mad panic gripping the legislature and business community right now, which is based on the assumption that congestion will get continually worse as it did for decades before 2006. As the TTI data shows, that assumption is five years out of date.
Instead of blindly raising more revenue, we need to pause to see how Virginia can spend its transportation dollars more wisely. Once we have tightened the link between transportation and land use… once we have developed a methodology for prioritizing transportation projects… once we have made the Public-Private Partnership process more transparent… by all means, we can turn our attention to finding new sources of revenue, if they are still needed. But rest assured, if we raise taxes first, legislators will have no stomach to enact the other, much-needed reforms, and nothing will get done.
Update: Here is McDonnell’s spin on the Urban Mobility Report: Congestion costs in NoVa are the worst in the country, in Hampton Roads the 20th worst in the country, and in Richmond the 60th worst in the country. No mention of the mega-projects. No mention of the changed trajectory.