Can We Have a Reality Check, Please?

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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.


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29 responses to “Can We Have a Reality Check, Please?”

  1. I suppose this means we are going to be treated to DJ blathering about NoVa’s first place status on all manner of related issues in the coming months, eh?

    but this I do not understand: ” While traffic in the Richmond region has rebounded to pre-recession levels, Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads haven’t come close. ”

    headline: ” Washington is No.1 in traffic congestion”

    okay. .. there’s a story here but I’m not sure what it is…

  2. Headline: ” VA 495 Express Lanes traffic “below expectations, adjustments needed” operator tells shareholders”

    (excerpted from TollRoad News reporting on revenues from the HOT Lanes on the I-495 Beltway:

    ” After six weeks operation they said in a report here January 11 that they were getting about 24,000 vehicles workdays up 60% from the initial 15,000 and that 93% were tollpayers and 7% carpoolers entitled to free trips. Revenue was running at an annual rate of $7m we estimated. ($s are Australian dollars similar in value to US$s.)

    A traffic and revenue study by Vollmer/Stantec finalized in February 2007 when the companies were committing to finance the project forecast average weekday trips over the first full year of operations at 66,132 and revenue of $46.1m. After four years operations they forecast 117k/weekday trips and annual revenue of $79m.”

    so…. apparently…. even though Washington is rated first in congestion, there’s not that much demand to pay a toll for less congestion.

    that’s why I think these “costs of congestion” surveys are a bit bogus.

    People complain about the congestion – and it can be measured – but how many are willing to pay more to get congestion reduced?

    answer: apparently not that many, eh?

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      Elasticity of demand is famously hard to estimate. In the case of the I495 Express Lanes – the cost per mile is too high, especially early in the life of the project.

      “People complain about the congestion – and it can be measured – but how many are willing to pay more to get congestion reduced?

      answer: apparently not that many, eh?”.

      By this logic, Transurban should charge $100 per mile since cost has no bearing on demand.

      As usual, The Imperial Clown Show in Richmond has gotten into a deal that just doesn’t work economically. How is the Pocohontas Parkway doing?

      1. well no. it’s a simple proposition. You have congestion. You have a way to buy it down. What happens? People complain about congestion like they do the price of gas but putting their money where their mouth is – is another question all together.

        1. DJRippert Avatar

          By your brilliant economic logic, you would come to the same conclusion if the toll was $100 per mile and usage was below expectations.

  3. t best you get a little local relief from a systemwide problem. But the idea that people are opting for more central locations that are more walkable, is just blather. Care to make any bets on how far out the new FBI building goes?

  4. DJRippert Avatar

    Let me repeat for the umpteenth time:

    1. The trend of people moving back into the cities is a temporary phenomenon caused by the Baby Boomers’ babies entering the work force. Young and without children these people like city living and will continue to stay in the cities until they start having children who need to go to school (age 6 or so). At that point these Echo Boomers will be faced with the same problems that have always beset young couples. 1) They will want better schools than the cities provide. 2) One of the two parents will want to either quit work and stay at home or cut back on work to focus on the kids, so 3) They will move to the suburbs to get near the good schools since their income will be reduced and their ability to fund private schools in the city will be questionable.

    There is some possibility of retired and semi-retired people moving back into the cities. However, these people often don’t drive as much as working couples so their departure from the suburbs may not reduce congestion much.

    2. The so-called Great Recession has seen a very tepid recovery. In fact, this is the “lamest” recovery from any recession in American history. The fourth quarter of 2012 showed negative GDP growth. Traffic has not recovered to pre-recession levels because the economy has not recovered (in real terms) to pre-recession levels. As the recovery continues congestion will also continue to rise.

    3. The reason Richmond has seen a return to historical congestion levels is because Richmond’s road infrastructure has been wildly overbuilt relative to the size of the MSA. A review of congestion results versus MSA size will show a generally strong correlation between MSA size and rank on the “congestion list”. The larger the MSA, the more congested the roads. Virginia tends to be the exception (somewhat). NoVa and Hampton Roads have congestion worse than predicted by their MSA size while Richmond has congestion much better than its MSA size. Having a four lane “beltway” running around Richmond through Henrico County (I295) is but one example. Richmond’s “beltway” is as big as the beltway around DC – an MSA almost three times bigger. There is a reason that the posted speed limit on I295 is 65 mph and you can actually find yourself speeding. Anybody who understands statistics understands that “wait time” is not linear as demand reaches capacity. However, it is fairly linear if demand is well below capacity. Richmond’s congestion never peaked and went into “elbow curve territory” because demand never flirted with capacity. The same cannot be said for NoVa and Hampton Roads. As demand continues to increase, the same thing will happen – as NoVa and Hampton Roads start to get closer to capacity the curves will, once again, start looking like a hockey stick.

    Jim Bacon’s theories are balderdash. They are designed to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt over any expenditure on roads. He lives in an MSA with congestion far below what would be expected based on the size of that MSA. So, he is comfortable with his “let them eat cake” philosophy.

    1. I think the commute to exurbia is exacerbated by young marrieds wanting to raise a family – in a setting like they grew up in that they can afford.

      Very few single people commute 50 miles because they want a traditional 3br subdivision home.

      Older folks ARE moving to the exurbs in DROVES because they hate the rat race in the urban areas, the crime, the traffic, the high taxes, etc and they want a “softer” lifestyle and the exurbs give them this while allowing them to be “close” to their working kids, grandkids and the museums and other amenities found in urbanized areas.

      There are tons and tons of cheap housing available in small towns in Kansas and Kentucky and all points in between but they have few jobs and little attraction to retired yet the housing is dirt cheap.

      I, like DJ, do not see the demise of exurbia anytime soon unless the price of gasoline goes to $5-10 a gallon and even then I think people will take mass transit.

    2. I think points one and two are very well stated. Once kids arrive in a family, the parents start looking for the best schools. And they sure aren’t found in most central cities. The economy still sucks.

      Transportation resources. Richmond has more of them per capita than NoVA. Not sure about Hampton Roads. But the fault lies with NoVA elected officials. They vote for the budgets and taxes that send more money south. They vote for expensive boondoggles – the Outer Beltway and the the Orange Line beyond Tysons, for example. The local officials have given sweetheart deals to developers, approving rezonings without getting enough money to pay for transportation improvements necessary to support development.

  5. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    I am with Jim on this one.

    But hose who highlight the problems to rational solutions do valuable service. We have systems in place that are very difficult to turn around, despite their obvious failures . They’d built on well intentioned programs that now spin out of control, feeding endless streams of dollars at “solutions” that now only extend and perpetuate the problem. And defeat demographics that might otherwise greatly alleviate them.

    In this society our political system seems unable to ween its citizens or itself off these programs that now breed chronic failure and waste. It seems as if now everyone to a degree is feeding off what’s getting ever harder to sustain. Hopefully we can turn around before going over the falls. Unfortunately, the plunge may be the only solution at this point.

  6. I have a relatively simple question. It appears that travel time delay is one of the components of the congestion index.

    I’ve looked through the report to see what data they are using for each region to do their calculations.

    In order words how do they determine travel time delay?

    The quality of the data is important – as well as how it is acquired.

    Are these folks actually sampling travel delays for 24/7 periods and if so where are they getting that data?

    are they looking at average speeds verses speed limits or what?

    no joy on my first look at their report.

  7. Travel time delay is measured by taking trips at night of off peak. Then the same trip is taken during rush hour and the difference is the delay caused by congestion, as opposed to road conditions, traffic lights, etc.

    I remember seeing the methodology layed out in one of their reports, but you probably need the full report and not the summary.

  8. Is it possible tht some of the lower “cost” of commuting is because the reession means that people are being paid less, and therefore their “lost time” is worth less?

  9. I am presently between tenants on my rental house. Yesterday I showed the place to an older couple who had spent the day looking in Arlington, thinking it would be closer to her place of work at the Navy Yard. they said that my place, though a little farther out (11 miles to Navy Yard) they thought it was much nicer than anything they saw in Arlington.

    They will do a test drive this morning: we shall see if they still like the place after that drive.

  10. I just wanted to point out, the “worst congestion” in Hampton Roads isn’t found at the Midtown/Downtown tunnels. While the 2-lane Midtown is dreadful from Norfolk travelling into Portsmouth from 3-6:30 PM and likewise the 4-lane Downtown, the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel stands heads and shoulders above those two offenders in terms of consistent delays and queues. It seems on a daily basis there is a 5-7 mile backup on each side of the water. While there is a draft EIS out on the eventual expansion of this facility, it will likely be quite a few years before that problem is taken care of, certainly quite a few after the expansion of the Midtown tunnel.


  11. My kids are pretty much ready to get out of Tidewater. The reason is pretty much the same as all the rest who have already left. Lousy jobs. One is already gone and the rest have been flapping their wings to head out. Dallas for one, is beginning to look pretty good.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      Darrell – Don’t your kids read the newspaper (or blogs)? Virginia is the best state for business.

      My oldest graduated from college and left for Atlanta 8 months ago.

      Virginia is dying.

      1. Actually I tend to read statistics and gut feelings. When this area is only able to keep growing because births are greater than deaths, you know we are in trouble. All my kids friends are gone. Reality is setting in because they are too busy working to make new friends. It’s down to Facebook, texting, and no money to go visit. Time to search for a better life. In my day it was called the Hillbilly Highway. Nothing changes much…

        1. Darrell – that’s an interesting perspective that is certainly an eye-opener to the rest of us who routinely point to NoVa and Hampton as the more prosperous work centers in the state.

          Is this a situation where it has gone downhill but still is better than many parts of the state?

          How can the kids are not going to NoVa instead of farther away?

          1. Well I’ve said here for a long time now that Tidewater is really RoVa. Federal jobs are what holds the per capita wages up here. State welfare from NoVa pays 50 percent of the local governmental budgets. And the ports would be broke if Richmond didn’t cover the short fall. But for some reason people think we are some big metro akin to DC.

            Now as for the kids. They have really bought into the hype of college and are digging a never die debt hole few will climb out of if they stay here. This area has very few entry level jobs, a prime ingredient in developing occupational critical mass and true growth.

            NoVa may as well be in New England. New workers can’t make enough to afford living there. So the kids look else where for a mix of jobs in an affordable area. They in effect move to the nation’s suburbs just like our local home buyers do. Atlanta, Dallas, Salt Lake or many other cities with low cost of living with job opportunities for advancement to mid-level positions. These other cities with high costs are nothing more than the Hillbilly company towns I grew up around. “Another day older and deeper in debt.”

  12. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    But where are they going to go. How many places fit for California Dreaming are left. Reality is closing in around our children. Our legacy is ashes.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      Boston, Manhattan, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Raleigh, Charlotte, Charleston, Jacksonville, Miami.

      Those are the east coast cities with better non-government economic prospects than any city in Virginia.

      If our legacy is ashes in America it is radioactive waste in Virginia.

      This (latest) General Assembly session looks to be another nail in the coffin of Virginia’s future.

      Trivia question – what is the most populous state to not have a major league sports franchise (including soccer)?


  13. DJRippert Avatar

    Sorry … I forgot Atlanta.

  14. I note that apparently the GA looks likely to pass a bill allowing income taxes in NoVa and Hampton – without a referenda and without sun-setting it.

    I note also that the Gov’s conversion of the gas tax to sales tax is still alive but they have cut the other “fees” that were supposed to fund transit.

    looking at the list of cities that DJ posted, I have a question – how many of them either already have toll roads and/are planning more?

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      Better question – how many of the cities on my list have kept their gas tax frozen in cents per gallon since 1987?

      That’s easy – none.

  15. re: none – and they STILL have toll roads, right?

  16. The North Carolina Turnpike Authority was created in 2002 by the General Assembly in response to concerns about rapid growth, heavy congestion and dwindling resources. The Turnpike Authority is authorized to study, plan, develop, construct, operate and maintain up to nine projects.
    Other places.

  17. NC HAS increased their gas tax over the years and is 10 cents higher than ours I believe but they’re still broke and building toll roads in Raleigh and Charlotte. Georgia is building them in Atlanta.

    but not all of them are doing well according to original projections. The 495 beltway lanes as well as the ICC in MD are way below projections.

    Which begs the question about congestion and time lost due to congestion. The original thought was that people would gladly pay a few extra bucks to get a less congested trip but it’s turning out that people would rather put up with the congestion.

    which sort of brings into question the whole idea of congestion being a terrible cost to individuals… yadda yadda…

    one thing is for sure – new roads to the exurbs – if they are tolled are no longer a sure bet… except perhaps that Dulles TR and Greenway.

  18. […] redoubtable Jim Bacon has his own thoughts on the TTI report and the various funding schemes floating in the GA right […]

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