Can We Drive Away Congestion?
by Vivikka Molldrem

When I moved to Edgewater, the road to Annapolis crossed the South River at a two-lane drawbridge. When the new South River Bridge was built, I expected an end to annoying delays.

The bridge made it so much easier to get from South County to Annapolis that homes and shopping centers sprang up everywhere. New lanes and stoplights had to be added. The result is that it takes me as long to get to town as it ever did.

My experience is not exceptional. Though the usual response to congestion is to widen roads or create bypasses, evidence is mounting that this doesn't work. One of the best analyses, a nationwide study by the Texas Transportation Institute, concludes that highway construction had no impact on reducing traffic congestion in major urban areas in the past 15 years.

What happens is that new roads encourage more automobile trips. Take the South River Bridge. Built to relieve traffic, it spurred development of the area, bringing in more cars until traffic slowed down again. A study of 30 California counties found that it takes about five years from the time of new lane construction for congestion to reach its previous levels.

Despite the traffic, we're clocking more miles every year. The Maryland Department of Transportation estimates that from 1970 to 1995, the average vehicle miles traveled per year grew by 70 percent. Marylanders drive on average 8,900 miles annually, and we'll add another 900 miles by 2020.

We pay a high price for automobile dependence. First, there's the tax burden. Maryland will spend over $2.8 billion for highway projects from 1998 to 2003. That doesn't count the cost in new schools, police and other services needed to accommodate the development that accompanies new roads.

Second, the environment suffers. Besides additional auto emissions, development along highways paves over green spaces, leaving less natural filter for polluted runoff that flows into the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Third, lack of alternatives forces people to buy cars who really can't afford them. People who can't drive - poor, elderly, disabled - have less access to jobs and services.

Clearly, what we spend in car payments, insurance, gas and maintenance doesn't reflect the true costs of driving. But people will depend on cars as long as they are inexpensive and convenient compared to other choices. Why would you wait for a bus when you can park free at the mall?

Maryland's Smart Growth program to direct development to already urbanized areas can help in the long term. High-density development should make carpooling and mass transit more convenient and economical. Demand for road investments in outlying areas that can't be developed will decrease. But short-term steps are also needed to alter people's driving habits by adjusting the costs and convenience of driving and its alternatives.

One simple step is to make mass transit more attractive by subsidizing it. A good example is the Commuter Choice Tax Credit, a program endorsed by the Maryland General Assembly this year, which gives employers tax relief for 50 percent of their costs in providing commuter subsidies to employees. This is good, but not good enough. We also need measures that raise the cost of driving to more fully reflect its cost. Such measures are technically easy but politically difficult to implement.

For example, greater use of tolling is possible with technologies like the "smart card," which removes the tollbooth bottleneck. The beauty of tolling is that you can see how much the convenience costs and, if you don't wish to pay, you choose another route. Higher tolls can be charged at rush hour. Solo drivers can use HOV lanes - for a price. Net revenues can then finance congestion-relieving investments like improving public transit.

Increasing the price of gas is another alternative. With gas at its lowest price in years, demand has increased for sport utility vehicles that eat gas. Gas taxes are very unpopular, but they encourage people both to drive less and to use fuel-efficient cars. A variation is "pay-as-you-go" insurance, where your insurance payment is charged at the tank, by the gallon. Those who drive most pay most. Other ideas include charging for parking at all parking areas, encouraging telecommuting and instituting 10-hour, four-day workweeks.

The point is that to reduce congestion, we have to drive less. Initiatives that more accurately price driving and offer attractive transit alternatives will in the long term improve the quality of life for everyone.

Vivikka Molldrem, of Mayo, has 20 years experience in designing and evaluating economic development programs.

| Issue 14 |

Volume VII Number 14
April 8-14, 1999
New Bay Times

| Homepage |
| Back to Archives |