The phrase,'Unsound Transit', was coined by the Wall Street Journal to describe Seattle where,"Light Rail Madness eats billions that could otherwise be devoted to truly efficient transportation technologies." The Puget Sound's traffic congestion is a growing cancer on the region's prosperity. This website, captures news and expert opinion about ways to address the crisis. This is not a blog, but a knowledge base, which collects the best articles and presents them in a searchable format. My goal is to arm residents with knowledge so they can champion fact-based, rather than emotional, solutions.


Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Congestion relief must be top priority for transportation policy

Five Principles of Responsible Transportation Policy

By Michael Ennis
Director, Center for Transportation
January 2008

Washington Policy Center encourages five principles of responsible transportation policy to help guide policymakers in returning to a system that provides people's freedom of movement.

Tie spending to congestion relief
Respect people's freedom of mobility
Invest resources based on market demand
Improve freight mobility
Use Public/Private Partnerships

1. Tie spending to congestion relief
Congestion relief is the most basic tenet in transportation policy, yet most people are surprised to learn it is no longer a priority in Washington state.
In 2000, Washington's Blue Ribbon Commission on Transportation identified several benchmarks to measure the effectiveness of the state's transportation system. These performance measures were very specific and some of them were adopted into law. They include:

Traffic congestion on urban state highways shall be significantly reduced and be no worse than the national mean.

Delay per driver shall be significantly reduced and no worse than the national mean.
However, during the 2007 Legislative Session, the legislature passed Senate Bill 5412, which repealed these precise benchmarks. Instead, the legislature substituted five broader policy goals: Preservation, Safety, Mobility, Environment and Stewardship.[1]

Likewise, the spending strategy for transportation taxes is defined in the Washington Transportation Plan 2007-2026.[2] This document, created by the Washington State Transportation Commission (WTC) and the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), identifies five "Investment Guidelines" to help prioritize spending tax dollars in transportation.

The five priorities are nearly identical to the five goals passed in Senate Bill 5412: (1) Preservation (2) Safety (3) Economic Vitality (4) Mobility and (5) Environmental Quality and Health.

In both cases, Mobility should mean congestion relief, but instead state officials define it as a strategy to move people, rather than improving vehicle flows. This means spending shifts from actually fixing congestion to providing alternatives to congestion.

In other words, according to the Washington Transportation Plan, relieving traffic congestion is not an "Investment Guideline" in determining how transportation money is spent. Instead, the plan says policymakers should spend money on other forms of transportation, like buses or light rail.

Ironically, this strategy will always lead to greater traffic congestion.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, private passenger vehicles account for about 85% of all forms of transportation in the Seattle region.[3] This means all other modes like mass transit (6.2%), bicycles (0.6%), walking (3.2%), and other (5.3%) serve only about 15% of travelers.

Adopting a policy that disproportionately spends public money on only 15% of the market will always lead to greater congestion, because the system that supports the remaining 85% is left to languish.

The Washington State Auditor's Office (SAO) recently concluded that, "The Washington State Legislature should choose/identify projects based on congestion reduction rather than other agendas."[4]

Strengthening the tie between spending and traffic relief does not sacrifice safety or preservation. These are not competing priorities. Traffic relief and safety/preservation can happen simultaneously, as long as regional leaders stop spending money in areas that do not relieve congestion. Washington policymakers should return to these specific performance measures and create a stronger link between spending and traffic relief.

2. Respect people's freedom of mobility
Government serves society, not the other way around. Policies that force citizens to behave differently than they normally would disregard the natural marketplace of society and ultimately threaten to take away political freedom from its citizens.
Likewise, government policies in transportation should be responsive to the market and improve the freedom of citizens to live and work where they choose.
Manipulating transportation policies to force a particular behavior coerces people to abandon their individual liberties in favor of a socialistic benefit where supposedly, a greater collective good is created.

These measures always fail because of what Milton Friedman called, "one of the strongest and most creative forces known to man," rational self interest; or people's desire to do what they believe is best for their own lives.

Instead, proponents of social change should work in the marketplace of ideas to persuade others to share their vision and work towards it. They should not use the power of government to force through their own ideas, but should seek to change policy, if that is needed, once reform is broadly supported by the public.

3. Deploy resources based on market demand
Transportation resources should be distributed based on natural market demand rather than the current system of building infrastructure that is somehow meant to attract demand.
In economics, supply is a function of demand. This means a willingness to use a service must exist before a supply of that service is created. Boeing executives do not make 300 airplanes knowing they will only sell 100. Likewise, governments should not spend a disproportionate amount of taxes in low demand sectors, where the public's willingness to use the service does not justify the investment.

European and U.S. transit systems provide good contrasting examples of how these economic concepts apply.

European countries are often believed to have highly successful public transportation networks and one of the more familiar systems is Switzerland Switzerland lies in the center of Europe and is an important transportation hub for both freight and passenger traffic throughout the continent. The Swiss system is primarily successful, not because of the amount of service or infrastructure, but because they have certain demographic and economic characteristics that induce demand.

In other words, there is an existing market with a natural customer base and Swiss policymakers responded with proportional infrastructure investments. As a result, mode share, ridership and fare box recovery are high.

In the United States, transit resources are distributed in just the opposite way.
Under the "build it, and they will come" theory, many policymakers think that increasing the supply of transit will somehow create more public demand. This speculative model fails because most U.S. cities do not posses the economic or demographic characteristics that create enough voluntary consumers for public transit.

Using the economic principles of supply and demand shows that building excess transit capacity before there is an equal amount of willingness to use it leads to an underperforming system. As a result, mode share, ridership and fare box recovery are low.
In any market, increasing the supply of a service or product before demand is available creates a large space between costs and benefits.

In the private sector, where benefits are measured by consumer choices, this type of behavior is unsustainable. A business will simply cease to exist once costs exceed benefits to consumers.
But in the public sector economic laws are not as strict. There is a higher tolerance for fiscal inefficiency because benefits are not always measured by consumer choices. There is also an element of public value.

In transportation policy, public value should be measured by freedom of mobility and traffic relief for the public. Therefore, policymakers can keep the space between costs and benefits small by separating projects that provide these values from projects that do not.
When prioritizing transportation projects, policymakers should use consumer demand to drive investments, not the other way around. Applying these time-tested economic principles in transportation policy will improve people's mobility and reduce traffic congestion.

4. Improve freight mobility
Freight mobility possesses a significant economic role in transportation policy but ironically, the state's investment strategy is an obstacle for improving the efficiency of moving goods.
The freight industry pays about 25% of the revenues the state receives from fuel taxes and vehicle registration and weight fees in Washington.[5]

5. Utilize Public/Private Partnerships Using the Public/Private Partnership (PPP) concept, policymakers can find effective ways to fund new projects, and to maintain the current transportation infrastructure. But relative to the rest of the United States , Washington has been slow to fully embrace the PPP strategy. These partnerships can take many forms and, according to the National Council for Public-Private Partnerships, there are generally about a dozen types. They can range between mostly private to mostly public and several types incorporate a balance of both characteristics. There are many benefits associated with a PPP. They include leveraging private dollars for public use, shifting risk from taxpayers to the private sector, and lowering overall project costs. Other factors like public oversight, asset ownership, long-term maintenance, liability and labor, will dictate which PPP is a better fit. In Washington , these issues have been treated as obstacles and prevented partnerships from forming. Yet, these questions have been addressed by other states by adapting the various types of partnerships. Undoubtedly, these concerns are important but they should not deter the benefits of a Public/Private Partnership.

Using the PPP concept, a group of businesses in Pierce County have joined forces to pool financial and construction related resources from their membership to build and finance projects. Without the support of the partnership, it is unlikely there would be enough public money to build the projects. For more information, see the WPC publication The Case for Public/Private Partnerships in Transportation Planning. Partnering with the private sector is one way to increase financial resources and get roads built. Otherwise, funding problems become insurmountable, roads are not built and our system continues to deteriorate. Public/Private Partnerships have a proven track record across the United States and should be embraced by public officials in Washington.
[1] [2] [3] Based on 2000 data. Available at:
[5] Transportation Revenue Forecast Council, June 2007 Transportation Revenue Forecast
[6] [7]

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