Commentary

Reduce Traffic Congestion, but Keep Out Government


     
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Alternate versions of this article were published in the Hartford Courant, Orlando Sentinel, Detroit News, and San Francisco Chronicle.

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One of the most consistent annoyances of living in Atlanta is traffic. The Texas Transportation Institute just released its annual Urban Mobility Report, and the area’s traffic ranks among the worst in the country, worse than New York City, Chicago and Miami.

Billions of dollars have been spent over several decades on transit subsidies, consultants, studies, special high-occupancy vehicle commuter lanes, new technologies and other hoped-for panaceas, but the congestion, delays and road rage show no sign of abating.

Our current road systems are like relics of the late, unlamented Soviet Union: socialist enterprises run by well-intentioned planners. Moscow citizens got relief from food lines by embracing capitalism. The market economy could similarly liberate road users from excessive congestion.

If pricing is applied to the scarce resource “road space,” and the revenues are allowed to stimulate investment in additional lanes or new technologies to speed traffic past bottlenecks, congestion could be reduced.

This has been happening since 1995 on parts of the express lanes of California’s State Route 91, on which charges vary from $1.20 to $9.50.

Unfortunately, some government officials and environmental activists embrace road pricing only to restrain the demand for road use, not to increase road capacity. London’s Mayor Ken Livingstone, for example, introduced “congestion pricing” in London in 2003, but surplus revenues are being spent on mass transit.

But just as sensible people do not allow alcoholics to run liquor stores, the insatiable thirst of governments for money should preclude them from involvement with road-use funds. Government expenditures are constrained because of the increasing burdens of social programs and skyrocketing defense spending. As a result, needed improvements are delayed, producing the kind of disaster we just witnessed in Minnesota with the collapse of the I-35 bridge.

But under private, market-based financing, expenditures would be limited only by the amounts road users are prepared to pay for better roads, not by politics.

Market pricing has been criticized for favoring the wealthy, but pricing helps everyone. California’s SR 91 express lanes are used and favored by all income groups, as they allow rich and poor alike to keep urgent deadlines, such as getting to work on time or picking up a child from a day care center.

How much worse does traffic have to get before we abandon our Soviet-style approach to highway transportation and allow road users to get the roads they’re willing to pay for?


Gabriel Roth is a transport and privatization consultant and a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute. He is the editor of the award-winning book, Street Smart: Competition, Entrepreneurship, and the Future of Roads.