The Crumbling Argument about Crumbling Highways

by James A. Bacon

As legislators fret about how to resolve the transportation funding dilemma — the latest wrinkle is that Democrats are threatening to withhold their support for increasing transportation taxes unless Governor Bob McDonnell caves on Medicaid expansion — they would be well advised to consult a new Reason Foundation report, “Are Highways Crumbling? State and U.S. Highway Performance Trends, 1989-2008.”

The Reason report offers a bit of good news: Virginia’s roads and highways are in a very good state of repair. One can argue that congestion is bad and getting worse, but no one can say that our roads are crumbling. Here is a summary of Virginia road conditions (ranked by greatest improvement among the 50 states):

Scratch below the surface and you may find data that supports the point of view of McDonnell and his allies who want to to raise more money to build more rail and roads. The main gains to the quality of Virginia’s highway system occurred in the 1990s — when the Virginia Department of Transportation was still relatively flush with cash after the 1986 round of tax increases. As inflation eroded the gas tax over the years , the quality gains began to diminish. On the other hand, one could argue that the road system was in such good shape by 1999, there was little left to do in the 2000s. After a certain point, chasing further gains is a waste of money.

But there’s a riposte to that, too. Virginia has made only marginal progress reducing the percentage of deficient bridges — and all the gains occurred in the 1989-199 time frame. The state has since backtracked from 24.5% to 26.1%. Cherry pick the data, as it suits your argument.

Safe roads. Another interesting finding: In 2008 Virginia had the third lowest (tied with Vermont) rate of highway fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles driven — 1.00, down from 1.69 in 1989. Whatever else you say about our roads, they are among the nation’s safest. Nobody talks about it, but road safety has enormous economic significance. The cost to society of accident, injuries and fatalities is three times that of congestion, according to AAA data.

Congestion? What congestion? The figure that stands out to me is the measure of “percent of urban interstates congested.” The percentage has declined as follows:

1989 — 64.8%
1999 — 37.9%
2008 — 37.9%

Who would ever known from the howls of agony that interstate congestion  got no worse over the 2000s? That data is not an outlier. It is consistent with the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) data in its 2012 Urban Mobility report that travel time delay in the Washington metro area peaked in 2007, plummeted through 2009 and has only edged back up in the past two years.

But, but, but… Washington congestion is the worst in the country, right? Yes, measured by TTI’s hours per year of congestion-related delay per commuter. But measured by Reason’s percentage of congested urban interstate, Virginia has a smaller percentage than Massachusetts, Missouri, South Carolina, Florida, Nebraska, New York,  Maryland, Utah, North Carolina, Oregon, Connecticut… need I keep going?

Hat tip: Norm Leahy at Bearing Drift

11 Responses to The Crumbling Argument about Crumbling Highways

  1. Well Jim, you seem to have started to grasp the pernicious role that inflation plays in transportation funding. I say started because you omit the obvious point that Virginia has been cycling a higher percentage of transportation revenues to maintenance than construction. Obvious outcome – the roads don’t crumble but they do congest. Eventually, of course, they will start to crumble as inflation eats more and more of the purchasing power of the frozen gas tax. You and Norm don’t need more surveys, you need an Economics 101 textbook. A high school student could tell why a frozen gas tax won’t work over time. The Democrats have been proposing indexing the gas tax to inflation. A decent college junior would see the wisdom in that. It was rejected by the Republicans.

    Now, even your Republican governor is calling BS on these silly pet tricks. Apparently, Gov McDonnell not only owns an Economics 101 text book, he’s read it. Good for him and good for Notre Dame for teaching him rudimentary economics.

    “travel time delay in the Washington metro area peaked in 2007, plummeted through 2009 and has only edged back up in the past two years.”.

    First, let me throw the geographic illiteracy flag. Although you elites in Richmond struggle with this concept the world does not end at the Virginia state border. How much of the travel time delay in “the Washington metro area” is coming in Maryland vs DC vs Virginia. Remember, only Virginia has frozen its gas tax since 1986.

    Now, let me throw the economic illiteracy flag. Peaked in 2007, dipped to a low in 2009, now edging back up. Where have I seen that graph? Oh yeah, GDP! Recessions are great for alleviating congestion. Maybe the RPV could suggest a full blown depression as their approach to relieving the transportation problem. If they did, that would represent the first suggestion of any type they made on the matter.

  2. IMO, the increased taxes and fees for transportation seem fair and reasonable, from what I’ve seen so far. I think it is a good idea to have more revenue to add to our transportation supply.

    However, let’s be perfectly clear, there will be no significant improvement in traffic flow (reduction in congestion) because of the added transportation supply. Why? For two reasons, one – the legislation does not address demand. Two – the legislation does not change what is built.

    Demand. If the demand for transportation increases at a rate equal to, more than, the increase in supply, traffic congestion gets worse. Tysons proves this in spades. Tysons will require $2.3 B (2012 dollars) in new non-Metrorail transportation facilities — increased supply. But the added demand will cause the network to fail on a consistent basis once Tysons grows to 84 million square feet. The added demand will crush $2.3 B of additional transportation supply.

    Second example, the Washington Council of Governments released a study last year that demonstrated, with all the “planned” improvements, traffic in 2040 will be as bad, or even worse, than today. Increases in supply will NOT provide taxpayers with the benefits of less congestion.

    The other reason we won’t see improvement in traffic is there is nothing to require the increased supply to be constructed in locations that deliver the best ROI to taxpayers. Witness the North-South Corridor of Significance – the Outer Beltway. It did NOT make the original list of corridors of significance. It was lobbied on to the list. It is designed to enable landowners who want to develop land south of Dulles Airport, near Route 50, who were not permitted to develop (rezoning) because their construction would crush the transportation network.

    I’ve pressed my friends at the Fairfax County Chamber. I’m told the route is necessary to expand airfreight service at Dulles. Yet, the boosters of this argument doesn’t include airfreight companies, but does include the landowners described earlier and companies providing services to them. I’ve never received an answer as to why the airfreight companies are MIA. I really don’t need an answer. Res ipsa loquitur.

    We need more tax revenue for roads, if just for maintenance. But don’t try and tell me we will see much for our higher taxes. We didn’t get the reforms necessary to ensure those tax dollars bring benefits to the public.

    • The solution to much of this traffic is smart growth.

      • let me add some further thoughts with regard to additional transportation dollars, outer beltways and smart growth.

        * roads are multi-use – but if you had limited transportation funds could you justify building a new “freight” road JUST for Dulles – in terms of ROI? doubtful.

        * if you build a new road – does it divert money away from improving existing roads including the improvements necessary to be upgraded to handle additional density for “smart growth”?

        * finally the money question for Smart Growth itself.

        If all of us have to pay increased taxes for transportation – is it better spent to build new outer beltways for more subdivision homes or on existing roads to mitigate increased “Smart Growth”?

        Bonus Question: Who makes this decision?

  3. re: ” Congestion? What congestion? The figure that stands out to me is the measure of “percent of urban interstates congested.” The percentage has declined as follows:

    1989 — 64.8%
    1999 — 37.9%
    2008 — 37.9%”

    this is true ?

    can’t be true for NOVA right?

  4. these are compelling numbers that if true would call into question what we are doing but I have to say those numbers do not jive with my personal experience ….. the occasional trip from the ‘burg to the DC area is almost always unpleasant white knuckle experience. It’s like a giant risk-your-life lottery with way too many risk takers.

    at the same time – the ONLY real viable method of truly adding ENOUGH interstate capacity to make a difference is IMHO going to be PPTA HOT/HOV.

    Even with the new additional transpo revenues, they’re not even close to generating the kind of money you’d need for 25 miles of new interstate (for instance) which costs on the order of a billion dollars when you include rebuilding and widening all the bridges, overpasses and existing interchanges. It’s GOD awful expensive to get REAL additional capacity that makes a meaningful difference.

  5. “travel time delay in the Washington metro area peaked in 2007, plummeted through 2009 and has only edged back up in the past two years.”.

    Just as the economy has improved in the last two years. And also the number of teenage traffic fatalities has increased as the economy allows more new drivers.

  6. It’s GOD awful expensive to get REAL additional capacity that makes a meaningful difference.

    But it is nowhere near as expensive as not having the capacity.

  7. if you build a new road – does it divert money away from improving existing roads including the improvements necessary to be upgraded to handle additional density for “smart growth”?

    Well, it is obvious to me that the real smart growth would be to put the growth where you already have unused road capacity, of which there is PLENTY. Anyone want to bet how close to downtown the new FBI building will be put?

  8. ” the Washington Council of Governments released a study last year that demonstrated, with all the “planned” improvements, traffic in 2040 will be as bad, or even worse, than today. Increases in supply will NOT provide taxpayers with the benefits of less congestion.”

    Jeez I hate this kind of utterly ridiculous and meaningless “analysis”. Less congestion compared to what? Todays level? How much traffic will be carried in the two instances?

    If you assume that the roads are near capacity now, you add more capacity, and the result is that the roads are still near capacity, then you must conclude that the additional capacity supported additional commerce.

    Absent the additional capacity, where does that commerce go, if it cannot be supported by additional road capacity here?

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