TCS Daily


Highways to Hell

By Brock Yates - May 24, 2002 12:00 AM

Having fun on the way to work? Chances are if you drive a private car like a vast percentage of the nation's citizens, your pleasure quotient lies somewhere between a migraine headache and an IRS audit. This is probably due to the daily gridlock encountered in every major city as commuters struggle through mud-bogs of traffic that gets worse by the year.

According to the Texas Transportation Institute, which tracks traffic patterns, the average urban motorist spends 36 hours a year stuck in traffic. Using 1999 data (the most recent year studied) from 68 metropolitan areas, the Institute concluded that the amount spent in traffic is escalating at an increasing rate. In 1982, a mere 20 years ago, commuters spent 11 hours in traffic, a third of the time consumed in 1999. Clearly, with no significant road construction in the nation and an increasing population, the situation is even worse today than the figures indicate.

According to the study, which analyzed data from the Federal Highway Administration and eleven state highway departments, the delays wasted $78 billion a year in lost time and needlessly burned gasoline.

Not surprisingly, Los Angeles led the way, with an amazing 56 hours frittered away in traffic jams. Our nation's capitol, where a single Beltway serves as the only major commuter thoroughfare, drivers lost an estimated 46 hours during the same time frame and upwards of $1000 each in lost work time and gasoline.

Still, Americans flood these jammed highways, choosing to eschew mass transit systems that struggle for riders and demand government subsidies to survive. But why will people endure the madness, the frustration and the expense to sit on gridlocked highways when public transportation might serve as an alternative?

Tim Lomax, a research engineer with the Texas Transportation Institute, recently opined to the Associated Press that "gas is relatively cheap. It's free to park in a lot of places and it's relatively easy to buy a car. Owning a car means you can go pretty much where you want to go pretty much when you want to go. It may take you longer than you want, but these freedoms are apparently ones that people are willing to suffer some congestion in order to have."

Amazing. After years of examining mountains of data, the conclusion involves freedom. While mass transit advocates scream for more funding and rhapsodize about the glories of light rail, Americans continue to pour Lemming-like onto jammed-up highways. Is there no choice, as mass transit proponents claim? Perhaps, although Atlanta and San Francisco, both with advanced rail systems, park their citizens in rush-hour traffic for 53 and 42 hours a year, respectively.

Fact: there isn't enough land or money in the nation to build proper commuter rail systems to relieve the pressure on highways. The movement of commuters has become so erratic, so scattered and illogical that devising train routes in and out of center cities is as archaic as steam engines and Tonerville Trolleys.

In major metro areas today commuter traffic flows toward all points of the compass, meaning that only the private motor vehicle is capable of reaching these myriad destinations with reasonable efficiency.

Therefore the solution would seem obvious in terms of relieving the madness. More busses, better timing of traffic signals, telecommuting, altered work schedules, etc. might help, but there is only one real answer to the dilemma: better highways.

This is of course a concept about as acceptable to conventional political thinking as adding PCB's to the public water supply. The mere mention of more roads enrages the environmental nuts, who would rather have millions of automobiles stuck in traffic, with their engines percolating at idle, where emissions are greater then when running at normal speeds. The resulting waste of gasoline is huge, although despite all the spilled ink about our dependence on foreign oil, this particular kind of waste goes unmentioned.

Over the past two decades we have added but a few hundred miles to the vast 41,000 Interstate System. Yet these roads were a massive component in the economic growth of this nation. Thanks to its rapid transport of goods and services, not to mention the migration of entire populations from east to west, north to south, the Interstate System has been an unbelievable benefit to this society.

Yet despite the inestimable contribution to the wealth of the nation, it is politically correct to denigrate and revile highways and motor vehicles as predators ravaging our land.

Even with the loss of time in gridlock and the high cost of private vehicle operation, the general public and the nation's businessmen know something that eludes urban planners and social engineers: the private motor vehicle makes economic sense.

It is not time to take full advantage of this amazingly versatile and user-friendly device?
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