Policy Analysis No. 617

Roadmap to Gridlock: The Failure of Long-Range Metropolitan Transportation Planning

Federal law requires metropolitan planning organizations in urban areas of more than 50,000 people to write long-range (20- to 30- year) metropolitan transportation plans and to revise or update those plans every 4 to 5 years. A review of plans for more than 75 of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas reveals that virtually all of them fail to follow standard planning methods. As a result, taxpayers and travelers have little assurance that the plans make effective use of available resources to reduce congestion, maximize mobility, and provide safe transportation facilities.

Nearly half the plans reviewed here are not cost effective in meeting transportation goals. These plans rely heavily on behavioral tools such as land-use regulation, subsidies to dense or mixed-use developments, and construction of expensive rail transit lines. Nearly 40 years of experience with such tools has shown that they are expensive but provide negligible transportation benefits.

Long-range transportation planning necessarily depends on uncertain forecasts. Planners also set qualitative goals such as “vibrant communities” and quantifiable but incomparable goals such as “protecting historic resources.” Such vagaries result in a politicized process that cannot hope to find the most effective transportation solutions. Thus, long-range planning has contributed to, rather than prevented, the hextupling of congestion American urban areas have suffered since 1982.

Ideally, the federal government should not be in the business of funding local transportation and dictating local transportation policies. At the least, Congress should repeal long-range transportation planning requirements in the next reauthorization of federal surface transportation funding. Instead, metropolitan transportation organizations should focus planning on the short term (5 years), and concentrate on quantifiable factors that are directly related to transportation, including safety and congestion relief.

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