Virginia’s highway network is straining to cope with an ever increasing and more mobile population. Traffic congestion in Northern Virginia is notorious. The Washington metropolitan area (including Northern Virginia) is one of the most congested areas in the nation, ranking fourth (behind Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco) based on the Travel Time Index (TTI).
In 2007, the TTI for the Washington metro area was 1.39, meaning it takes 39% more time to travel in the region during peak travel times compared with the time in a free-flowing environment. It is also estimated that the average motorist in the Washington metro area experienced 62 hours of delay in 2007. For the Hampton Roads and Richmond metro areas, the TTI was 1.18 and 1.09 respectively for 2007. The average motorists in those two areas lost 29 and 20 hours, respectively, due to traffic delays.
Many proposals have been offered to fix Virginia’s transportation problems. From an economist’s point of view, there are two broad theoretical approaches that can reduce traffic congestion in Virginia: reduce the existing motorists that use highways or increase road capacity by building more highways. Some solutions lie beyond the conventional “transportation policy” arena and require strategies in economic and workforce development.
Demand-side options aim to reduce the number of motorists on Virginia’s highways. One approach is to improve the public transit system. Subways, light-rail, and buses can effectively reduce the demand for highways when certain conditions are met. First, the public transit system has to be relatively close to where people live and work for easy access. Secondly, it needs to provide regular and frequent service. Therefore, public transit is automobile-competitive only in densely populated areas.
Whether rail transit is cost effective largely depends on the percentage of capacity it can reach. For urban areas where congestion occurs, highway capacity has been exceeded. In a low density area, where rail-transit cannot reach its full capacity, it can be much more expensive than building new highways.
Making public transit effective enough to reduce congestion requires considerable investment in new transit routes to serve suburban business centers and more stations closer to residential neighborhoods. It may also necessitate improvements to current roads to make them more walkable—including sidewalks and overpasses to cross busy highways. A bus rapid transit system (BRT) might be the most cost effective way to move commuters in some congested metropolitan areas; a well-designed BRT system can carry more people than light or heavy rail at a much less cost.
Another way to reduce highway traffic is to establish tolls on congested roads. This could serve two objectives—reducing traffic congestion and increasing funds for transportation projects. Other ways to reduce road demand and traffic congestion can be accomplished with car pooling and working from home. Some businesses have encouraged both options.
On the supply side, building more highways can debottleneck traffic congestion in problem areas. The Reason Foundation estimated that to reduce congestion, 1,803 new lane-miles have to be built before 2030 in the Washington metro area. For the rest of Virginia, 988 lane-miles are needed with 567 lane-miles in Hampton Roads and 176 lane-miles in the Richmond metro area. While the final goal is clear, debate continues on adding more roads to solve traffic congestion. Some argue that adding road capacity will simply entice more driving, leading to more congestion. To that end, state policies may be needed to control driver usage such as high occupancy vehicle lanes and congestion pricing on high occupation toll lanes and toll roads.
Where will the money come from to expand capacity? Whether public transit is expanded or new highways built, enormous capital investment is needed. Hoping for a budget surplus is unreliable under the current economic climate. New revenue sources need to be identified to solve the bulk of the transportation issues. Suggestions range from raising taxes to public-private partnerships to the sale or lease of specific Virginia assets.
Despite different views on how to solve Virginia’s transportation issues, it is widely agreed that the traffic issues in Virginia require innovative solutions and bold leadership.
This article represents a condensed version of “The State of Transportation—The 2010-2011 Economic Forecast” published by the Thomas Jefferson Institute and was originally published in the Richmond Times Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.