Congestion, Transit, New Roads, Return on Investment and Millennials Factor Into Project Selection Decisions

In case you missed it, I have a new Capitol Research brief out this week on the role of Metropolitan Planning Organizations in transportation planning. That makes it as good a time as any to catch up on a number of recent stories at the intersection of planning and project selection (project selection was one of my Top 5 Issues for 2015, regular readers will recall). I have items on a recent report on congestion and mobility around the nation’s cities, light rail and streetcar projects around the country, the ongoing debate about building new roads versus fixing old ones, how one state is seeking to prioritize transportation projects based on return on investment, and how the preferences of millennials are likely to shape transportation in the years ahead. 

Congestion & Mobility

When the Texas A&M Transportation Institute issued its 2015 Urban Mobility Scorecard last month it did not go unnoticed. Sure there were plenty of breathless headlines (see also here, here and here) touting the report’s findings that traffic congestion around the nation’s major cities has returned to pre-recession levels and that Washington, D.C. tops the list of cities with the most gridlock (82 hours of delay per commuter).

But there were also a large number of articles suggesting the report’s methodology and findings were simply wrong-headed.

Joe Cortright of City Observatory wrote that TTI’s core measure of congestion costs—the travel time index—only looks at how fast people can travel and ignores how far they have to go.

“As a result, it makes sprawling cities with fast roads between far-flung destinations look good, while penalizing more compact cities where people actually spend less time — and money — traveling from place to place,” he wrote.

Robert Puentes of the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings wrote that: “What’s important is not movement or mobility of vehicles but, rather, the accessibility the system provides for people; whether it's getting to a job, or school, shopping, entertainment, or recreation. For an example, my colleague David Levinson compares Manhattan, Kansas to Manhattan, New York. Traffic in the latter is infamously bad, especially compared to the former, but he estimates that Manhattan, N.Y. is ‘20 times as accessible as Manhattan, Kan., despite speeds that are, at best, half as fast.’”

Tony Dutzik at Frontier Group wrote that TTI’s findings are even undermined by their own data: “Over a longer time horizon, stretching back to the pre-recession years of the early 2000s, TTI’s numbers show that congestion has hit something of a plateau. Assuming that data from the early years of the TTI report can be accurately compared to more recent figures (something Cortright questions), the average number of hours spent in traffic by an auto commuter is no higher than it was in 2006.”

TTI’s findings are also brought into question by a recent report on “Peak Motorization” from the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, Planetizen reported. The UMTRI report concludes that “the total travel time per person decreased substantially from 2004 to 2014, and that this decrease is due to a decrease in the proportion of persons engaged in the trips, and not an overall reduction of the duration of the trips.”

Todd Litman at Planetizen, another longtime critic of TTI’s reports, wrote that: “The Urban Mobility Report’s title is inaccurate: it should be renamed the Traffic Congestion Report, because it ignores other modes and other urban transport performance factors such as affordability, safety, and local economic development.”

So why does the way congestion is defined matter? Eric Sudquist of the State Smart Transportation Initiative wrote that the TTI report came out just as the Federal Highway Administration is reportedly finishing work on performance measures on congestion and system performance that were mandated under MAP-21. Sudquist said a recommendation offered by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) would be an improvement over TTI’s measure of congestion because it would let states and metropolitan planning organizations set the benchmark speed rather than relying on a generic "free-flow speed." But Sudquist also said FHWA could do even better by following the recommendations put forward in a 2013 report by SSTI, the Eno Center for Transportation and the Bipartisan Policy Center.

That report, which emerged from a workshop among various transportation stakeholders and public sector officials, recommended average trip time and system reliability as appropriate measures of congestion and system performance under MAP-21. But the group also argued future transportation bills would need to add new measures and improve existing ones. The group’s other recommendations included:

  • Placing additional focus on developing data sets that more accurately depict the full trip times of travelers using all modes;
  • Reconsidering the attempt to measure congestion and considering whether other performance measures might be better for evaluating desired outcomes; and
  • Working to better develop metrics of accessibility in the next surface transportation bill.      

“What travelers really care about is the time and dollar cost of accessing destinations, and new data and methods offer the ability to track those costs,” Sudquist wrote. “If the rulemaking simply focuses on vehicle delay, regardless of the benchmark, it will be a missed opportunity to optimize the system for accessibility.”

The Reason Foundation's Robert Poole had a different take on the TTI report in his monthly newsletter Surface Transportation News.

"As expected, advocates of transit and "smart growth" are rolling out critiques of the TTI/INRIX report, as if breaking the thermometer would make the temperature go down," he writes. "The report focuses only on drivers? Yes, because they are the vast majority of commuters nationwide. The measure is misleading, because it compares free-flow speeds to rush hours? Well duh, that's what congestion is. That doesn't mean that the optimum, cost-effective solution is zero peak-period congestion, but it is the most straightforward way to measure the magnitude of the problem."

Public Transit

  • Arizona: Dan Vock of Governing magazine last month examined “How Car-Centric Cities Like Phoenix Learned to Love Light Rail.”
  • Maryland: Gov. Larry Hogan’s decision to cancel Baltimore’s Red Line light rail project will cost the state $100 million in federal funding because those funds can’t be used for other projects, Progressive Railroading noted last month. Baltimore officials remain concerned about the cancellation and uncertainty over potential transit alternatives for Charm City, the Associated Press reported. … The potential funding makeup for another project that did receive Hogan’s blessing—the $2 billion, 16-mile Purple Line light rail project between Bethesda and New Carrollton—was examined in a piece by WAMU’s Martin Di Caro earlier this summer.
  • New York: The issue of how to pay for a new Hudson River rail tunnel was the subject of a dispute last month between New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, the Associated Press reported. Cuomo has said the federal government should pay the “lion’s share” of the cost of the estimated $14 billion tunnel project, which is expected to alleviate congestion through the existing tunnel and which is seen as vital to the region’s future transportation needs. 
  • Texas: Texas Department of Transportation Executive Director Joe Weber said recently he doubts that his agency can build enough new highway lanes to meet the mobility demands prompted by the Lone Star State’s burgeoning population. Weber indicated more passenger rail may be part of the equation of developing a system to address those demands. But he said TxDOT will remain neutral and not push lawmakers and local leaders for more transit funding, The Dallas Morning News reported.
  • Utah: According to a Siemens-sponsored study, light rail and streetcar projects in the Salt Lake City area have resulted in 1,300 new jobs and the addition of $225 million to the region’s economy, Progressive Railroading reported.  


  • The Wall Street Journal recently looked at streetcar projects that have run into delays and other problems in cities like Atlanta, Washington, D.C. and Kansas City, Mo. The article also quotes a streetcar skeptic, Jeffrey Brown of Florida State University, on why Portland, Oregon’s streetcar is seen as a success on the other hand. “The system works because it is in a neighborhood with many residents and jobs, service is frequent, and it connects well with other city transit,” Brown told the newspaper.
  • Cincinnati is another city that has been frustrated by project delays on its streetcar, The Cincinnati Enquirer reported.

Fix-it-First vs. Building New

  • Streetsblog USA recently talked with Chuck Marohn of the Strong Towns blog about why politicians like building new roads more than fixing old ones. Among the reasons he gave: building new infrastructure is less complicated, new projects tend to be more popular with the public, and new construction is easier to finance. 
  • In a recent special edition, Politico examined the city of Milwaukee’s "addiction to building new megahighways" even as the nation isn’t investing enough to fix existing roads.
  • Back in June, Brad Plumer of Vox examined “a growing backlash against unnecessary highways” as driving declines in the United States.

Transportation Planning Processes

  • Virginia: The Commonwealth Transportation Board this summer approved a new process for scoring transportation projects that is the result of 2014 legislation, Better Roads noted. It’s a process that will rank and prioritize work to be done and which projects merit funding based on those that will generate the greatest return on investment in terms of easing congestion and stimulating economic growth, state officials said. Projects will be screened and scored into early 2016 and projects selected will be added to the Six-Year Improvement Program in June of next year following a public comment period.

Millennials & Transportation

  • It turns out that more than one of the explanations given for less driving among millennials could be true, writes Eric Jaffe of The Atlantic CityLab.
  • Bob Graves of Governing writes in a recent piece that cities are likely going to have to turn to multi-modal solutions to attract young professionals. “Clearly, communities that attract millennials are increasingly going to be those that provide a multitude of transportation choices to support multi-modal lifestyles,” he writes. “Some, like Portland, Maine, are even starting to promote themselves as cities where young professionals can live without a car; it may be no accident that Portland also happens to lead the nation in declining vehicle ownership.”