PREPARED STATEMENT BY C. KENNETH ORSKI, EDITOR/PUBLISHER OF INNOVATION
BRIEFS , BEFORE THE HEARING OF THE SUBCOMMITTEE ON HIGHWAYS AND TRANSIT
OF THE HOUSE COMMITTEE ON TRANSPORTATION AND INFRASTRUCTURE, MAY 21, 2002
Relieving Highway Congestion through Capacity Enhancements and Increased
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
RELIEVING HIGHWAY CONGESTION THROUGH CAPACITY EXPANSION 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."
RELIEVING HIGHWAY CONGESTION THROUGH IMPROVED MANAGEMENT AND
OPERATION OF EXISTING FACILITIES 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.
"Infostructure" 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
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.
SIMPLIFYING AND ACCELERATING THE HIGHWAY PROJECT APPROVAL PROCESS 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.
CONCLUSION 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.
INNOVATION BRIEFS A publication of the Urban Mobility Corporation
10200 Riverwood Drive, Potomac, MD 20854-1536
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