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GUEST EDITORIAL

State should stop trying to limit driving and start reducing congestion

I'm often asked how other states compare to Washington on transportation policy. This is a reasonable question, because across our state, traffic congestion is growing worse and is expected to double over the next 20 years. Congestion chokes the economy, robs valuable time from our families and lowers our overall quality of life.

But how do we compare to other states?

My response always mentions Texas because of its early adoption of Public/Private Partnerships and tolling, and its continued spending on infrastructure.

Washington can learn a lot from how the Lone Star State is tackling congestion, increasing personal mobility and, as a result, stimulating economic development.

Good transportation policy incorporates five important principles. Policymakers should implement performance measures like traffic congestion relief or economic development. They should respect people's freedom of mobility, spend transportation dollars based on market demand, improve freight mobility and utilize Public/Private Partnerships.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn recently that the goals of policymakers in Texas are remarkably similar.

According to the state's 2009-2013 Strategic Plan, the Texas Department of Transportation's goals include (in this order) to reduce congestion, enhance safety, expand economic opportunity, improve air quality and preservation.

Believe it or not, traffic congestion relief is not a policy priority in our state. This means there is no obligation or relationship between spending and reducing congestion.

Not only is congestion relief the top priority in Texas, that state's transportation department backs up its priorities with specific performance measures that hold the department accountable and ultimately strengthens the relationship with spending.

The Texas Department of Transportation also uses four strategies to accomplish its stated policy goals: They "use all available financial tools to build transportation projects." They "empower local and regional leaders to solve local and regional transportation problems" and "harness market-based principles to maximize competition, reduce costs, and guide investments." The state also "facilitates consumer-driven decisions that respond to market forces."

Washington policymakers, on the other hand, try to manipulate the market by forcing the public to shift from the roadway to other modes. This demand-side strategy is plainly visible in Washington's new policy to reduce pollution by restricting how much people can drive. State leaders want to reduce how much motorists drive from an average of 31 miles per day, to 22 miles per day, despite technological advances in lowing emissions and improving fuel efficiency. In fact, the transportation sector is the only sector with CO2 emissions in Washington that is actually declining. Never have policymakers been more explicit in their desire to unnecessarily force people away from driving.

Instead of spending money on infrastructure and services that proportionally support market demand, state leaders in Washington try to shift people from one travel mode to another. This strategy inevitably leads to greater traffic congestion, because government will always fail to control the market in this way. Despite years of higher spending on expanding public transport services, its overall mode share has remained flat for the last three decades, while traffic congestion has risen sharply. The current and proposed trends in transportation spending continue this failed strategy.

Washington policymakers would achieve economically better results if they abandoned social engineering and instead responded to market demand. The economy, motorists, taxpayers, the freight industry, ports and ultimately the general public, will benefit and thank them.

- Michael Ennis is director of the Center for Transportation at Washington Policy Center, a non-partisan independent policy research organization in Seattle and Olympia (washingtonpolicy.org)

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