Raising Taxes, Building Roads, Inducing Traffic

by Randy Salzman

In fighting the waste of taxpayer dollars on the so-called “Western Bypass” of Charlottesville, I met a woman who favored the bypass because her family owns a beach house in Virginia Beach. As best as  I could decipher her logic, she was willing to drive 15 miles out of her way to save approximately one minute to bypass congestion north of Charlottesville on her six-hour trip from the Appalachian foothills to the Atlantic Ocean.

Even if the bypass allowed her to drive 60 miles per hour for the entire 6.2 miles, and even if she hit every light along the existing U.S. 29, it will always take her more time to drive the bypass, which is literally taking her the opposite direction from her beach house.

There is no planning model to calculate this kind of “induced traffic” but every time the before- and after- reality of a newly constructed highway project has been researched, induced traffic has been found. We drive more times more places with less thought whenever government makes it seem easier or cheaper to drive, which, of course, creates more pollution, more fuel consumption, more global warming, more need to fight in the Middle East, more reason for oil companies to drill in the Arctic and, in the end, more congestion.

Every highway project has slightly different effects, but overall the data show that more lanes of highway induce more people to drive farther until not only is the new roadway oversubscribed but the roadways it was intended to relieve are again backed up. Donald Chen, in a 1998 Surface Transportation Policy Project titled, “If you Built it, They Will Come: Why We Can’t Build Ourselves Out of Congestion,” found that 90 percent of new urban roadways in America are overwhelmed within five years. And those roadways are never cheap. Indeed, an analysis of roadway construction across 70 urban areas over 15 years concluded:

Metro areas that invested heavily in road capacity expansion fared no better in easing congestion than metro areas that did not. Trends in congestion show that areas that exhibited greater growth in lane capacity spent roughly $22 billion more on road construction than those that didn’t, yet ended up with slightly higher congestion costs per person, wasted fuel, and travel delay. … On average the cost to relieve the congestion reported by [Texas Transportation Institute] just by building roads could be thousands of dollars per family per year.

In the case of the Western “Bypass,” the Virginia Department of Transportation does not even claim that spending $240 million on a locally unwanted highway will make U.S. 29 easier to drive. Both before and after spending money the state does not have, VDOT reports U.S. 29 north of Charlottesville will have an “F” level of service.

Unfortunately for those of us who want our tax dollars spent wisely, as a nation and a people we’re invested in outdated, short-term thinking because no politician – or media – dares question the American love affair with the automobile. Because the vast majority of voters are also drivers, we keep denying reality and producing policy that digs us ever deeper into a vast hole.

Just days ago, the General Assembly passed a budget compromise that decreases the Commonwealth’s meager gasoline tax and charges everyone more money for milk, whether they drive or not, primarily in order to ease the cost of driving which will, every economist notes, lead to more driving.

It is not primarily population growth that creates congestion, it is new driving ,which grows at an annual rate of at least twice population, regardless of where the rate is measured. Since 1970, U.S. vehicle miles traveled have increased 121 percent — four times population growth. Read more.

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5 responses to “Raising Taxes, Building Roads, Inducing Traffic”

  1. larryg Avatar

    highway engineers will insist that it’s not induced, it’s latent demand.

    but I have a different view (naturally). Take a car GPS unit. Most any brand will do. Now look up the option for what the default route calculation is.

    I think there are usually two options: 1. shortest distance and 2. shortest time.

    Now.. I have noticed that most come out of the box with shortest time as the default.

    but I have also noticed that many folks either don’t understand the difference or they disagree with the GPS when it says a different route than they are used to (or want) is longer than the shortest time route on the GPS.

    Part of it is that the shortest time and shortest distance vary according to time of day and not all GPS use real-time traffic in that calculation although more and more are.

    Phones also are being used these days – by more than a few folks who believe the phone is just as good as a dedicated auto GPS (not entirely true) but many phones do use real time traffic data.

    then there is one additional issue and that is how old the map data is in the GPS unit – which further befuddles some folks who do not understand that the data inside their GPS is not up-to-the-minute and an update actually is required -preferably once or twice a year to ensure they get the latest/greatest and newest roads.

    Now.. given the myriad issues with GPS, but still recognizing that many cars have those little guys stuck to their windshields and/or use their phones – I somewhat question the induced traffic paradigm that road opponents have traditionally used over the years (as much as I question the “latent demand” claim from highway engineers.

    Most folks are pretty straight-forward (if they really understand how to use the GPS -and the GPS is using real time traffic) and they won’t go out of their way to lose time.

    what all of this actually means for new roads… is still playing out – as is the other new thing – tolls -(which is not in play on the Cville bypass).

    My new GPS has real time traffic – as well as an interactive feature that prompts me to alter the route if there is a variance between the default shortest time – and a traffic incident or peak-hour congestion.

    I expect more and more people to catch on to the better capabilities of the latest GPS technologies and to let that guide them on which route is the fastest for the time of day.

    longer term, I expect the whole discussion about “bypasses” and saving time to evolve as people start to better understand how GPSs work – and the things that go into actually calculating shortest-time routes.

    I’m sorta surprised that we’re still talking about induced demand without at least talking about shortest-time issues…which Mr. Salzman, to his credit, did address even if only in a tangential way.

    In the future when someone heads north or south on Rt 29 through Cville and the bypass is in place – most folks are likely going to dutifully follow their GPS. I mean we keep hearing cases of people following their GPS even when it does not make sense…so I full expect people to take the route the GPS suggests when taking rt 29 through Cville.

  2. We build a lot of road projects in Virginia just to enrich land speculators. But we also built the Silver Line to do the very same thing. Every project beyond spot improvements should be ranked based on the ROI to taxpayers in terms of reductions in traffic congestion and improvements in safety. Landowners who obtain rezoning because of transportation improvements should pay at least 59.5% of the costs for such improvements. The Tysons formula.

  3. larryg Avatar

    I think on and off about what TMT says about roads and developers and I mostly agree with him but developers can’t sell things that people don’t want. They basically are meeting a demand.

    And TMT would not want the folks who use those roads to drive to their new homes – to, instead, live in denser “smart growth ” near him…either.

    so where would these people go if it were not for new roads opening up new greenfield sites for people who want “affordable” single family detached – rather than “unaffordable” single family detached in already-developed areas and/or “smart growth” in already developed areas?

    I struggle with this same conundrum myself except down our exurban way – people are not going to drive 50 miles to live in a dense, compact, “smart growth” development. They come down here for the same reason they’d take a new developer road to a new greenfield site.

    I mean what WOULD happen to NoVa, if Til Hazel and company ended up NOT being able to get a new road built for new homes?

  4. Larry, I have nothing against developers. I’ve written a couple of letters to Fairfax County supporting the rezoning requests of developers when they’ve complied with the Comp Plan and contributed to infrastructure needs appropriately.

    What I oppose is taxpayers subsidizing developers’ profits. Virginia law provides for a person seeking rezoning to pay the additional public facility costs their rezoning would impose. I just expect the law to be followed.

    I don’t care whether people want to live in nearby, dense communities or in the exurbs next to Larry so long as the supporting infrastructure is added. Both communities impose significant costs on the public unless the communities pay a fair share of the costs. The major profits in real estate should come from the sale or rental of high-quality structures that meet demand. Builders need to pay their costs (labor, materials, permits, etc.). Why should a developer be excused?

    While it is far from perfect, Fairfax County made a reasonable decision to require landowners and developers to pay 59.5% of the costs for road and non-rail transit improvements in Tysons. If that policy were adopted statewide, we’d have fewer battles over development. We’d have an economic mix of development, based more on market factors than on other people’s beliefs about what is “good” or “bad” development. We match new development with new public facilities. We wouldn’t have a big fight on our hands over the Outer Beltway or the Charlottesville Bypass. They would get built if it were economically feasible. It wouldn’t get built if the nearby landowners, receiving rezoning, couldn’t afford to pay for the largest share of the road’s costs.

  5. larryg Avatar

    We’re very close on views on this TMT. but correct me… that in terms of development – it’s more expensive to build in already dense areas than greenfield exurban areas… . right?

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