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

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Federal law requires metropolitan planningorganizations in urban areas of more than50,000 people to write long-range (20- to 30-year) metropolitan transportation plans and torevise or update those plans every 4 to 5 years. Areview of plans for more than 75 of the nation'slargest metropolitan areas reveals that virtuallyall of them fail to follow standard planningmethods. As a result, taxpayers and travelers havelittle assurance that the plans make effective useof available resources to reduce congestion, maximizemobility, and provide safe transportationfacilities.

Nearly half the plans reviewed here are notcost effective in meeting transportation goals.These plans rely heavily on behavioral tools suchas land-use regulation, subsidies to dense ormixed-use developments, and construction ofexpensive rail transit lines. Nearly 40 years ofexperience with such tools has shown that theyare expensive but provide negligible transportationbenefits.

Long-range transportation planning necessarilydepends on uncertain forecasts. Planners alsoset qualitative goals such as "vibrant communities"and quantifiable but incomparable goalssuch as "protecting historic resources." Suchvagaries result in a politicized process that cannothope to find the most effective transportationsolutions. Thus, long-range planning has contributedto, rather than prevented, the hextuplingof congestion American urban areas have sufferedsince 1982.

Ideally, the federal government should not bein the business of funding local transportationand dictating local transportation policies. At theleast, Congress should repeal long-range transportationplanning requirements in the next reauthorizationof federal surface transportationfunding. Instead, metropolitan transportationorganizations should focus planning on the shortterm (5 years), and concentrate on quantifiablefactors that are directly related to transportation,including safety and congestion relief.