Commentary

Will Congress Make It Harder for You to Travel?

Will travel keep getting faster and easier in the 21st century, or will we get bogged down by a cumbersome central planning process that creates more urban congestion and gridlock? The answer depends on how Congress acts on the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA), which was passed in 1991 and is up for reauthorization this year.

A better title for the law, which allocates billions of dollars from federal gas taxes, might be the Urban Immobility and Pork-Barrel Act. ISTEA gives urban governments incentives to promote congestion and build pork-barrel projects.

Rail transit projects funded by the law increase congestion because they carry so few people and divert funds from activities that could improve traffic flows. Even Washington, D.C.’s well-developed but expensive rail and bus transit network moves fewer than 14 percent of all commuters.

Light rail in particular is a 19th-century technology that is slow, inconvenient and expensive. Many cities now pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into light rail lines that will replace two or three bus routes could have doubled bus service on every one of their routes for far less money.

Portland, Oregon, is often touted as a model for urban planning and transportation. Yet its light-rail line is a failure, carrying fewer than half the people originally projected by planners. Since the line went into operation, transit’s share of weekday Portland traffic has significantly declined.

Portland planners “have stopped trying to ease traffic congestion,” reported National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” recently. “Instead, they are embracing congestion; they want to create more of it.”

They are succeeding. The Texas Transportation Institute’s annual congestion survey says that congestion is increasing faster in Portland than in any other western city. Portland planners quietly predict that their land-use plan will triple congestion over current levels.

Why would anyone want more congestion? Supporters of immobility fall into four distinct groups:

Central city officials, who see immobility as a way to encourage suburbanites to return to the cities;

Urban environmentalists, who wish the automobile had never been invented;

Urban planners, who think that they know how people should live, work and travel and want to impose their ideas on everyone else; and

Downtown businesses, who think that suburban congestion will return office workers and shopping mall customers to downtowns.

ISTEA encourages supporters of immobility in several ways. First, it allows the diversion of federal gasoline taxes to mass transit. Since rail transit makes better pork than buses, most of the dollars are going into rail.

Second, ISTEA discourages cities failing to meet Environmental Protection Agency air quality standards from expanding roadway capacity, or even forbids them to do so. This is ironic because slower cars pollute more, making congestion a major source of air pollution. ISTEA also imposes on cities a central planning process that has given supporters of immobility the upper hand in allocating transportation dollars. While they pacify auto drivers with rhetoric about easing congestion, they spend highway dollars on so-called traffic calming measures, such as concrete barriers and narrower lanes, that increase congestion by forcing cars to slow down.

The Department of Transportation uses ISTEA funds to encourage cities to adopt the “New Urban” planning philosophy, which promotes 19th-century, high-density housing. Portland, for example, is rezoning large areas of the city for row houses and multi-family dwellings while discouraging or forbidding construction of homes on large lots. New Urban densities are supposed to promote transit, but all they really do is create more congestion since residents of high-density areas still drive most of the time.

Perhaps you think that we should try to get people to use transit. But these efforts don’t work. Portland planners want to spend billions building 90 miles of light rail, increase population densities by 70 percent and impose “traffic calming” on many major roads and streets.

Yet the planners predict that the share of trips made by auto will decline less than 5 percent, from 92 to 88 percent. The share of trips by transit will remain under 5 percent. That’s a huge cost for a tiny change in travel habits.

Urban transportation is essentially a local issue, not a federal one. The solution is to take the federal government out of the transportation funding process.

Sen. Connie Mack (R.-Fla.) and Rep. John Kasich (R-Ohio) have proposed eliminating most of the federal gas tax and letting cities and states plan and finance their own transportation systems. If that happened, many cities would come to their senses and plan for the 21st century rather than the 19th.

Randal O’Toole is an economist with the Thoreau Institute in Oregon and the author of “ISTEA: A Poisonous Brew for American Cities,” forthcoming from the Cato Institute.