This week’s much-discussed bipartisan legislation on infrastructure might be up for vote in the House of Representatives. The bill would authorize $500 billion of new funding for various priorities and infrastructure projects.
Environmentalists and advocates for public transport are not happy with the idea of increased federal highway funding. These advocates argue that increasing traffic congestion and pollution by expanding roads will lead to more polluting.
Road expansion projects are not delivering the expected benefits. In fact, the evidence shows that they actually make traffic and pollution worse,” said Ben Holland, the manager of the Urban Transformation Program at the Colorado-based environmental non-profit RMI, last Thursday to Reuters.
He refers to “induced demand” as the phenomenon. The idea is that adding new lanes only encourages drivers to drive further, which in turn eliminates any congestion relief that the asphalt had been supposed to offer.
RMI and Transportation for America released last week a calculator which allows users to estimate the amount of induced demand that would result from adding roadway lanes in particular areas.
This calculator does not represent the most recent rebuttal against the idea of expanding highways as a way to relieve congestion. September was a busy month. Bloomberg CityLab David Zipper is a Harvard University Kennedy School Fellow. He wrote a lengthy piece critiquing road widening promises and a project to expand I-35 downtown Austin in Texas. Zipper claimed that the reality of inducing demand, and the requirement that some states spend all of their gas taxes on highways encourage state transportation departments to continue building freeways, regardless of the limited effects such construction has on congestion.
This type of thinking is beginning to be heard in Washington. The House Democrats had earlier in the year introduced a transportation bill which would have made it difficult for states not to spend federal transport dollars on roads. This bill would have granted cities with a greater transit-friendly infrastructure more power over transportation spending.
While pushing for increased road funding, the Biden administration used some innovative means to defer certain projects.
In April of this year, the Federal Highway Administration requested that Texas Department of Transportation stop soliciting bids for a Houston downtown highway widening project. This was due to civil rights concerns expressed by politicians and activists.
The idea that more roads will lead to more car trips isn’t controversial. However, there is heated debate about whether more auto travel is necessarily bad. It is still disputed whether inducing demand really is an “iron law”, which renders every highway expansion futile.
“Much of what happens when a freeway is widened is explained by latent demand—trips that were previously made on other roads or by other modes that shift to the expanded freeway when it becomes available because the freeway is now a better alternative,” wrote Robert Poole, director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation (the nonprofit that publishes this website), earlier this month.
Poole argued that extra highway trips shouldn’t count as an evil because they require people to change their routes from nearby bus lines or arterial roads to get on the highway. It is not that the new highway is making their commute more difficult.
Poole argued in a 2019 newsletter that much of the evidence for the futility of highway widenings comes from projects that marginally expanded already congested roads. Poole pointed out that more aggressive highway widenings had resulted is substantial. ReductionsTraffic congestion
It’s worth noting that one of the solutions that the critics of highway widenings offer as an alternative—expanding public transit—would also fail at reducing congestion. By switching from driving to riding transit, you would create more capacity for other drivers.
It doesn’t mean transit spending should be increased, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.
A more effective solution to traffic congestion—one that both Poole and BMI have offered—is congestion pricing. It is where motorists pay a fixed toll for entry to certain parts of the city, or travel in tolled express lanes.
Traffic demand dictates that congestion tolls can fluctuate in price, so people have the choice of having to pay money to travel at peak hours. Individuals who have more flexibility in the times they travel can usually pay less for off-peak time.
Drivers pay an additional fee for their capacity.
There are congestion-priced lanes along sections of I-66 within the D.C. Metro area. New York City has been slow to implement congestion pricing in Lower Manhattan. London, Singapore and other cities around the world have used congestion pricing successfully to decrease traffic in their urban centers.
Congestion pricing could be a way to reduce road construction. In order to control demand, you could instead apply higher tolls on existing lanes.
However, this could quickly become expensive for drivers with lower or moderate incomes. Congestion pricing and expansion of highways could be alternatives to congestion pricing. This would allow for freer traffic.
Unfortunately, Congress may soon adopt an infrastructure bill, but it does not move much to promote congestion pricing adoption, which has been very slow due to a federal ban on interstate tolling.
The bill’s $100 billion budget for bridges and new roads will come from general funds, making it a single subsidy. This approach takes highway funding away from “user pays and user benefits”, which was the norm when all federal highway spending was covered by federal gas taxes.
It is possible to make highway expansions a profitable endeavor. But those expansions should be funded by the drivers who will benefit from them—through gas taxes or, better yet, tolls and mileage fees. Although the new infrastructure bill from Congress acknowledges the benefits of increasing road capacity even though it does not pay it the correct way, it is a good start.