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Road Congestion: It’s All About Politics

Everyone who drives in the Twin Cities knows that traffic is terrible here, but most people don’t understand why. This morning I had an op-ed in the Minneapolis Star Tribune that connected the dots. Road congestion isn’t a fact of life, like cold winters. Rather, it is the result of bad decisions by politicians:

If you think you are spending more time than ever stuck in traffic, you are right. In a new report published by Center of the American Experiment, transportation expert Randal O’Toole lays out the depressing facts:

• The number of hours that the average Twin Cities driver wastes sitting in traffic quadrupled between 1982 and 2014.

• The American Transportation Research Institute recently identified the 100 worst bottlenecks in the U.S. The Twin Cities had four — more than Chicago, Los Angeles or New York.

• Residents of urban areas comparable to the Twin Cities enjoy much greater mobility. Kansas City, for example, has 1,320 lane miles of freeway per million residents. The Twin Cities have only 670 freeway lane miles per million people, a figure that has shrunk since 1982. As a result, average driving speed in the Kansas City metro area is 40.1 miles per hour, compared with 29.4 mph in the Twin Cities.

• Congestion costs the Twin Cities metro area nearly $4 billion per year in wasted time and increased business costs.

Why have the Twin Cities done so poorly when it comes to managing traffic? A lack of funding is a leading cause of gridlock. We know that when Gov. Tim Pawlenty boosted funding in 2004, a substantial increase in freeway lane miles followed, which provided meaningful congestion relief.

While funding is an issue, relieving congestion is no longer a key priority for state agencies. The Metropolitan Council’s 2030 transportation plan said: “The Council recognizes that congestion will not be eliminated or significantly reduced in the Metropolitan Area.” Instead of reducing congestion on the roads, the Met Council wants to take advantage of horrific commute times to force Twin Cities residents onto trains, buses and bicycles.

The reality, however, is that no matter how much money we spend on trains — an obsolete, 19th-century technology — they will never make more than a minor contribution toward the area’s transportation needs. Currently transit (i.e., trains and buses) in the Twin Cities accounts for only 1.4 percent of passenger miles and virtually no freight miles. Bicycles account for even fewer miles. How do Twin Cities residents get where they need to go? More than 95 percent of the time, they drive.

Yet the Minnesota Department of Transportation proposes to spend $700 million on bike and pedestrian infrastructure over the next 20 years and only $265 million on mobility improvements for cars. Likewise, the Met Council’s 2040 plan calls for spending $6.9 billion on “transitways,” but only $700 million on increasing road capacities.

Not only has the Met Council’s obsession with trains not eased congestion, it has actually made congestion worse. A 2015 study by the University of Minnesota found that opening the Green Line between Minneapolis and St. Paul displaced traffic from University Avenue, so that “speeds have dropped greatly” on Interstate 94. Similarly, the Hiawatha light-rail line added 20 minutes or more to travel times between Minneapolis and Bloomington on Hwy. 55.

Currently, Washington Avenue is under construction in downtown Minneapolis. The purpose is not to increase traffic capacity, as you might assume, but rather to reduce it. The current six-lane Washington Avenue will be downsized to four lanes, with two elevated lanes reserved for bicycles.

The bottom line is that the responsible agencies — the Met Council and MnDOT — are not trying to reduce congestion. In some instances, they are intentionally or inadvertently making it worse. The result is that the Twin Cities are, needlessly, among the most congested metro areas in the country.

The Center is fighting road congestion by bringing attention to the political origins of the problem. We have ads running on radio stations around the Twin Cities, and on Monday this billboard went up at the corner of Highways 35W and 494:

SONY DSC

SONY DSC

Today, 20,000 bumper stickers were delivered to our office! Watch for them in the next issue of Thinking Minnesota, and on cars around the Twin Cities.

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Traffic congestion isn’t like cold winters. It’s not inevitable. We just need better policy choices.

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