Thursday, November 30, 2006

"Politicians will face deep public doubts about selling off public assets or explaining why they condemn people's property to build for-profit roads."

The Transportation Tipping Point

November 30, 2006

Neal Peirce, syndicated columnist
The Seattle Times
Copyright 2006

By 2043, we're being told, there won't just be 300 million of us — there will be 400 million. With the roadways around our metropolitan regions increasingly clogged, how will we ever stay mobile?

Depending on the tea leaves you choose, some vividly contrasting futures emerge.

Vision No. 1 is "stay the course." Keep driving as we have. In 1980, 64.4 percent of us drove to work alone; in 2000 it was 75.7 percent, according to the Transportation Research Board's recent "Commuting in America" survey by Alan Pisarski.

The statistics are disturbing. Carpooling dipped from 19.7 percent to 12.2 percent in the same years. Transit use went from 6.2 percent to 4.6 percent. And walking dropped from 5.6 percent to 2.9 percent, as workplace locations exploded out (along with our waistlines).

A car-wheeled world is what Americans choose. Argument over, say some.

But wait a minute. Already there's the pain of stretched-out commutes; the 16 hours of delay the average motorist experienced in 1982 was 47 hours in 2003. Traffic congestion is costing us, cumulatively, 3.7 billion hours of travel delay, wasting over 2 billion gallons of fuel each year.

Plus, if Americans like highways so much, why do we so often and so fervidly resist increases in gas taxes to pay for them?

Which brings us to Vision No. 2. We privatize. We invite the private sector to take over roads — and then charge us.

This is the hottest new trend, discussed intensely by governors, state transportation officials and state legislators. Multibillion-dollar roadway investments by private financing firms are increasing fast. We've reached what transportation expert C. Kenneth Orski calls a critical "tipping point."

Some of the moves are primarily revenue moves. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley negotiated a 99-year lease of the eight-mile Chicago Skyway toll road to foreign investors for $1.8 billion. In New Jersey, there's active consideration of leasing the 148-mile New Jersey Turnpike and 173-mile Garden State Parkway to garner revenue to meet a mushrooming state debt of about $33 billion. In Indiana, Gov. Mitch Daniels weathered a storm of political skepticism to lease the 157-mile Indiana Toll Road, again to foreign investors, for $3.85 billion. Indiana is now the nation's only state with a fully funded 10-year highway-building capital program.

But the even greater import of the new trend, Orski suggests, will be private funds for new "greenfield projects" including express toll lanes, new stand-alone toll roads (the Trans-Texas Corridor is the top example) and multistate truckways.

The timing for tollways should be perfect — with today's technology, automated toll-collection systems (like E-ZPass on the East Coast) take the daily aggravation out of the process.

But still, says Thomas Downs, president of the Eno Transportation Foundation, politicians will have to face deep public doubts about selling off public assets or explaining why they condemn people's property to build for-profit roads.

And then there's backlash when financing projections go awry. A private firm, for example, recently reversed field by telling Virginia officials it would need $100 million in public funds to build and run high-occupancy toll lanes on a 14-mile stretch of the Capital Beltway outside Washington.

The vision of privatized roads has more downsides. It assumes there's no problem with continuing to pave over so much of our continent. Given today's heavy auto ownership, 37 square miles need to be paved over and 1,400 miles of interstate-grade highway built for every 1 million new people. All too often, the new roads carve up fertile farmlands surrounding metro areas. This country already has more than 4 million miles of roads, enough, the Earth Policy Institute calculates, to circle the Earth at the equator 157 times.

And what about oil? In a nation richly endowed with reserves, we've largely depleted that treasure.

So is there a Vision No. 3? Yes, there's a set of tea leaves that says so — the vote of many Americans earlier this month to support new and expanded public transit. Transit proposals with cumulative value of $40 billion were approved from Rhode Island to Minnesota, Missouri to Utah to California.

My column on Monday will ask: Is Vision No. 3 a sentimental throwback, or a powerful alternative for this century?

Neal Peirce's column appears alternate Mondays on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is

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