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From The Editor


Relieving Highway Congestion through Capacity Enhancements and Increased Efficiency

Mr. Chairman, Members of the Committee,

My name is C. Kenneth Orski. I am editor and publisher of Innovation Briefs, a bi-monthly publication which has been reporting and interpreting developments in the transportation sector for the past 13 years. Innovation Briefs, I am pleased to say, has a wide and influential audience that includes congressional staffs, federal, state and local transportation officials, newspaper editors, business leaders, association executives, and transportation professionals. My testimony today is based on observations acquired in the course of gathering and analyzing information for our publication. These observations draw on recent briefings and conference presentations, and on interviews and personal communications with members of the transportation community in Washington, and state and local transportation officials across the country.

Motorization, Travel Patterns and Demographic Trends at the Turn of the Century
I commend the committee for focusing attention on the growing problem of highway congestion. Anyone who drives cannot help but be aware that traffic congestion is increasing in severity. Traffic jams, formerly a phenomenon associated with crowded downtowns, have spread to the suburbs and now affect vast portions of metropolitan areas. According to the latest Texas Transportation Institute's Urban Mobility Study, the length of the combined morning and evening "rush hour" has doubled, from under three hours in 1982 to almost six hours today. The time Americans spend in traffic has jumped 236 percent since 1982 and the average annual delay per person has climbed from 11 hours in 1982 to 36 hours currently.

The rising incidence of "highway rage" is but one manifestation that public tolerance of highway congestion is wearing dangerously thin. Highly publicized incidents such as recent spills on the Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago and the Washington Beltway, which immobilized traffic for several hours, contribute to the general feeling that things are getting out of control, and a sentiment that "there's got to be a better way."

Congestion not only has become a major irritant in the lives of individual travelers, it also burdens the economy with inefficiency and higher costs. Unpredictable traffic-caused delays interfere with production techniques that depend on just-in-time deliveries and reduce the productivity of businesses that deliver goods and services, from United Parcel Service to the neighborhood plumber. Texas Transportation Institute estimates that the annual cost of traffic congestion nationwide totals $78 billion, representing the cost of 4.5 billion hours of extra travel time and 6.8 billion gallons of fuel wasted while sitting in traffic. Clearly, traffic congestion has reached a stage where it affects not only the lives of millions of people but the functioning of the entire national economy.

Whether these facts alone justify elevating the issue of highway congestion to the national level and calling upon the federal government to solve the problem, is a question on which opinions may differ. There is much to be said against "federalizing" every new problem that confronts the nation. However, the danger is that if we as a nation do nothing, the problem will only get worse.

Most demographers agree that there are no indications that the fundamental forces behind the growth in vehicle miles of travel (VMTs) are about to diminish or reverse direction. These forces include a growing population, a vigorous rate of household formation, rising incomes that enable higher levels of auto ownership and, importantly, a trend toward ever greater metropolitan decentralization. Despite the "Smart Growth" movement, average urban land density has dropped by more than 20 percent nationwide between 1980 and 2000. Of the 281 metropolitan areas in the nation, only 17 have become more dense. The latest figures from the Washington region confirm the continued strength of the outward population movement. Since 2000, the outer suburbs have experienced population growth of 7.8%, the inner suburbs have grown at a rate of only 1.6%, while population in the central city has actually declined by 0.2%.

Continuing urban dispersal with attendant lower densities ensure, in turn, that the motor vehicle will remain the primary means of personal transportation and goods movement for as long into the future as we can see.

The response to these trends should consist of a two-pronged attack: (1) adding new lane capacity to our overburdened metropolitan road systems and (2) making existing roads work more efficiently through improved operations. While opinions may differ as to the proper balance to be accorded to these two major congestion relief strategies, both are needed for effective congestion relief. Operational strategies are helpful in reducing "non-recurrent" congestion - i.e. traffic jams caused by collisions, vehicle breakdowns, road repairs and other sporadic events - but they are of little help in dealing with persistent traffic bottlenecks caused by too many vehicles trying to squeeze into too few highway lanes. The latter kind of congestion - recurrent congestion - can only be dealt with by expanding physical road capacity.

While the era of massive highway construction is over, incremental additions to road capacity must continue if we are to make progress in battling traffic congestion. Capacity expansion can take many forms: widening existing roads; building bypasses around suburban centers; constructing "congestion relievers" to provide alternate commute routes; and undertaking "bottleneck reduction" programs designed to eliminate key choke points caused by inadequate design (such as three lanes of traffic funneling into two).

HOT Networks
A more ambitious strategy would consist of creating seamless, metropolitan-wide networks of High Occupancy/Toll lanes. The "HOT networks" would provide a system of congestion-free fixed guideways for express Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), while offering a faster travel option to solo motorists who are willing to pay a premium for faster, more reliable travel. HOT Networks would remain congestion-free even at peak times thanks to variable pricing. Tolls would be debited electronically from the users' smart cards, thus doing away with toll booths and cash transactions. Funds to develop and operate the HOT lane networks could come from a combination of existing federal-aid highway funds, a New Starts BRT set-aside, and local funds in the form of tolls collected from single-occupant vehicles using the reserved lanes. A congressionally authorized program of High Occupancy/Toll (HOT) networks-built to benefit motorists and transit users alike-would constitute an eloquent expression of the increasingly intermodal nature of our federal surface transportation program.

Highway opponents argue that expanding road capacity is pointless because new capacity generates its own demand. Thus, they contend, "you-cannot-build-your-way-out-of-traffic-congestion," for any new highway lanes will inevitably fill up with "induced" traffic. This line of argument ignores the fact that additional highway capacity is needed to accommodate increased population growth and economic activity in metropolitan areas. After all, hospital beds and class rooms also eventually fill up in high growth areas, yet no one would use that as an argument for stopping construction of new schools and hospitals. Only highways are expected to abide by this "do-nothing" response to growth. As Federal Highway Administrator Mary Peters so aptly put it: "We need to break the anti-highway cycle that has plagued us. Sometimes, transportation really is about asphalt, concrete and steel."

Opinion surveys indicate that, while people can plan and make allowances for "normal" or recurrent congestion, they do not easily tolerate unanticipated and unpredictable delays. That is why state and local transportation agencies are devoting much effort and attention to attacking the problem of sporadic congestion caused mainly by unforeseen traffic incidents. Here, improved management and operation rather than capacity expansion is likely to produce more immediate results and offer a more cost-effective approach. The objective is to improve predictability and reliability of travel by employing a host of complementary operating programs and methods. These include incident management programs designed to promptly detect accidents, divert traffic, and clear accident scenes; Traffic Operations Centers that allow to closely monitor traffic conditions and take appropriate countermeasures; traveler information systems that inform motorists about traffic conditions and hazardous weather conditions; and better work zone management designed to facilitate traffic flow through and around construction zones.

Operational improvements rely heavily on the application of advanced intelligent transportation system (ITS) technologies. A key enabling initiative would be the creation of a comprehensive "infostructure" capable of collecting and sharing transportation system condition and performance information covering entire freeway and arterial networks in metropolitan areas (currently, only 22 percent of urban freeway networks and virtually no arterials are instrumented). Such a communication network could become an integral and vital part of a homeland security infrastructure, available in times of national emergency for evacuation and mobilization purposes.

While highway operations have always been part of every state and local transportation agencies' mission, it is only recently that the concept of "operations" has acquired a clearly articulated objective - that of "enhancing system performance," notably by reducing incident-caused delays and improving travel reliability. Last year's FHWA-sponsored "Operations Summit" recommended that the objective of improved system performance become a declared policy of the Federal-aid highway program and that explicit language to that effect be introduced in Title 23 and 49 of US Code.

A federal congestion relief program also should take an aggressive posture toward reducing delays in the highway review and approval process. While current efforts of the Federal Highway Administration to streamline procedures through administrative action are commendable, Congress should provide more explicit legislative direction to reduce delays that have plagued the project implementation process. Issues that call for congressional resolution include establishing uniform ground rules and timelines for dispute resolution; further reducing or eliminating the federal review process for minor projects; setting maximum time limits for multi-agency federally required reviews for major projects; and giving states and localities greater authority to sign off on environmental reviews through self-certification.

A three-pronged strategy of (1) increasing highway capacity, (2) improving highway performance and (3) streamlining the highway approval process, supported by appropriate Congressional action in the next surface transportation reauthorization, could go a long way toward keeping highway congestion under control.

This concludes my testimony. Thank you for the opportunity to express my views on this important set of issues.


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