Ending Maryland Transportation’s Planned Congestion Policy
By Mark Uncapher
This past week the Maryland Democratic Party released a video from a February legislative hearing in which state Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn suggests that past policies have contributed to traffic congestion. The Maryland Democrats are apparently dismayed, even shocked, by criticism of past transportation policy. This in spite of previous decisions helping to make ours one of the most congested regions in the country.
The video reflects the latest salvo in the legislative back and forth over Democratic-backed legislation altering the way Maryland evaluates transportation spending projects. Critics of their legislative proposal allege that their new scoring system would be biased in favor of mass transit and tilted against rural areas. Secretary Rahn called on legislators to forgo this formulaic project ranking. Alternatively he would charge a panel with developing a system that would allow for fair competition for state transportation dollars.
Under the Democratic legislative proposal, meaningful, open public debate about transportation spending would be intentionally obscured. Since past Maryland transportation spending demonstrates how poor planning decisions can make congestion worse, this is hardly surprising. Instead of investing in projects focused on reducing motorist travel times, planners have diverted money to mass transit users. This switch is justified to voters, who are overwhelmingly motorists, with the promise that traffic congestion relief will come from diverting more drivers to mass transit.
Nearly half of Maryland’s transportation spending goes for mass transit. Yet cars account for approximately 97 percent of all travel. Transportation planners justify the imbalance to motorists by promising that travelers will be diverted away from the roads to transit. However despite decades of spending, the promised travel “diversion” to public transit has never materialized.
Instead, Maryland mass transit’s increase of 52,000 daily commuters has been more than offset by a 62,000 loss in carpool commuters. According to U.S. Census data between 1990 and 2008, 93 percent (400,000) of all additional commutes were by single-occupant automobiles. Interestingly, almost as many commuters have been “diverted” from the roads by working at home (47,000), as they were by mass transit.
The failure to deliver on promises to make roads less crowded as a result of more mass transit spending comes as little surprise. A century ago, centralized job locations could be fed by convenient trolley lines within a 10-mile radius. Today our metropolitan areas span thousands of square miles with population densities that cannot support widespread mass transit usage.
But not only has Maryland transportation spending deemphasized highway spending, when Maryland does build transportation projects, the results are far more expensive than past efforts.
Compare the state-built Inter-County Connector with Virginia’s private Dulles Greenway. Both are about the same distance in length – the ICC is 14 miles and the Dulles Greenway 13 miles. Both were built through largely undeveloped parts of the Washington exurban area. Yet the privately-financed Greenway cost $315 million to build in the 1990s, while the ICC cost $2.5 billion. Meanwhile, in Montgomery County, the Silver Spring Transit Center originally expected to open in 2009 at a cost of $30 million saw its price tag balloon to over $120 million.
Changes to the Purple Line reflect the Hogan Administration’s far more balanced approach to transportation projects. Thanks to a combination of practical design changes and additional local and private-sector funding is expected to reduce the state’s share of Purple Line funding from nearly $700 million to $168 million, a savings of more than $500 million. Nearly half the state’s savings result from practical design changes, reducing base construction costs by at least $215 million.
By spending the state’s transportation dollars more carefully, limited resources can be used more effectively.
Drivers in single-occupant cars make rational economic choices by trading the higher commuting costs of a car for less time spent commuting. In effect, even a 6-minute reduction in commuting time can be worth the equivalent of 2 percent of income. Conversely, by not making road improvements and thereby delaying commutes, Maryland’s transportation strategy of planned gridlock adds yet another cost of living in the state.