A local approach to easing gridlock

Planners raise local funds for innovative projects instead of relying on state and federal money.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Coming soon to a bottleneck near you:

•"Queue-jumper" lanes such as one in Lee County, Fla., where harried drivers paying a 25-cent toll can get around backed-up intersections.

•Trucker toll lanes, already under consideration in Atlanta, that will in effect segregate big rigs from the rest of the freeway public.

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•Privately managed zoom lanes, similar to the South Bay Expressway that opened in San Diego on Nov. 19, that allow motorists to move at a heavenly 65 miles per hour.

With 55 of the nation's 85 densest population centers estimated to have Los Angeles-style road congestion within the next 20 years, local road planners are increasingly blowing by the stagnant revenue from state and federal fuel taxes and instead raising their own money to build new roads and optimize existing roadways.

Head winds include the risk of political failure as Americans not only balk at more taxes, but also resist the prospect of foreign companies swooping in to manage toll roads in the land of Ford and Chevy.

"The message from everybody right now is, if you think the federal government or even state government is going to come in and completely solve your transportation problems, you're kidding yourselves," says Scott Van Lanningham, vice chairman of the Northwest Arkansas Council, a private infrastructure think tank.

Short term, the gridlock continues. In its 2007 Urban Mobility Report, the Texas Transportation Institute estimated that Americans wasted 4.2 billion hours and 2.9 billion gallons of fuel while sitting in traffic jams last year. Before this Thanksgiving, a survey by Discover Card found that 15 percent of Americans said the hassle of getting to their holiday destination was almost not worth it.

Pressures to stay globally competitive and keep urban areas attractive are forcing the highway make-overs. Before now, politicians – and the voting public – either failed to anticipate such pressures or put off the projects because of costs, experts say.

"The inevitability of having to deal with this issue on this scale will force us to make policy choices and change things, so that in the long run we do solve these problems," says Sam Staley, coauthor of "The Road More Traveled," a book about potential solutions to America's "congestion crisis."

Three decades ago, no state allowed local authorities to raise funds for highway projects; 35 states now do. Such local problem-solving is not necessarily a bad thing, given the regional complexities of gridlock, says Martin Wachs, a transportation expert at the RAND Corp. What's more, he says, busy roads are a result of success, not failure.

"Congestion is associated with economic growth, and if it were uncongested, it wouldn't be so exciting," says Mr. Wachs. "Congestion is not an unmitigated disaster."

But America's response, so far, is "a joke," says Joe Washington, a software engineer waiting for Amtrak's hour-late Crescent train Saturday night in Atlanta. New bus and rail routes are the real solution, Mr. Washington believes.

But there's a fundamental problem: Mass transit's share of ridership is steadily losing ground to cars across the United States, according to the Reason Foundation, a free-market-oriented think tank in Los Angeles.

At the same time, the US is approximately $1.5 trillion behind on current infrastructure commitments, according to the Institute of Transportation Engineers in Washington. Raising the 18.4-cent federal fuel tax – last boosted in 1992 – seems a political impossibility with gas prices rising, experts say.

Indeed, the road to transportation salvation is pitted with political potholes. When Indiana leased the Indiana Toll Road to an Australian company, the state Republicans, at least partly as a result, lost their majority in the House as voters balked at the idea of handing over a major state asset to foreign management.

But when foreign-management controversies are taken out of the equation, there are some signs of a shift in public attitudes toward paying for highway improvements. For example, in California, most of the much-touted county infrastructure bonds passed last November.

"Unfortunately, 20 years ago, our land planners didn't talk to our transportation planners, so now we're in a mess," says Sarah Catz, director of the Center for Urban Infrastructure in Irvine, Calif. "Finally, everyone is starting to talk to each other. Hopefully it's not too late."

In some places, highway planners are already stepping on the gas.

Inspired by efforts in Europe and Asia, Oregon is testing on-board GPS systems that could one day allow mile-by-mile pricing for all car travel in the state. Flexible plans could give discounts to drivers traveling in off-peak hours.

Despite ardent opposition, new express toll roads that opened this year in Austin, Texas, have been hailed as a success – meaning lots of fast-moving cars, and revenues outpacing costs.

The trucking industry, meanwhile, is experimenting with switching more loads to nights.

And don't think that rail is dead. The first commuter rail since 1938 in Charlotte, N.C., opened on Saturday and was packed to the gills.

Finally, in a gambit straight out of the Jetsons, the Swedish government is working with Santa Cruz, Calif., to plan a "personal rapid transit" (PRT) system – individual cars connected by cables to a rail system.

Pie in the sky? Given the growing gridlock, maybe not, says Ms. Catz.

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