Twin Cities Traffic Congestion: It’s No Accident

Residents of the Twin Cities consistently rate traffic congestion among their principal concerns and complaints, and properly so. The Twin Cities is among the most congested cities in the country. Congestion costs commuters and businesses close to $4 billion in the Twin Cities region. Not only is the state not adequately funding congestion relief, the Met Council and the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT)—the state agencies responsible for the transportation system—pursue policies that make congestion worse. Congestion can be relieved with the right policies.

Congestion worsening. Twin Cities congestion has consistently grown worse and worse over the past few decades. The amount of time the average Twin Cities driver wastes, stuck in traffic, quadrupled between 1982 and 2014, from 12 hours to 47 hours. MnDOT’s most recent congestion report shows congestion rose to a higher level in 2015 than any year since it began measuring in 1993.

Congestion costs billions every year. All that time sitting in traffic imposes substantial costs in terms of wasted time, wasted fuel, and increased pollution. The Texas Transportation Institute estimates the cost of congestion in the Twin Cities equaled $2.2 billion in 2014, and approaches $4 billion when the cost to business is fully accounted for.

Congestion growth is worse than most cities. In 1982, the Twin Cities were rated the 35th most congested urban area in the U.S., while by 2014, the Twin Cities had become the 21st most congested urban area. A new report ranks Minnesota 17th among 52 large urban areas.

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, New York, or any other urban area except Atlan- ta and Houston.

Congestion is not inevitable. The Twin Cities’ congestion problems are much worse than in comparable cities like Indianapolis and Kansas City. In 1982, Indianapolis was more congested than the Twin Cities. By 2016, the Twin Cities had become significantly more congested, even though Indianapolis’s population has grown nearly twice as fast since 1990. Similarly, Kansas City has twice as many lane miles of highway per million residents as the Twin Cities. As a result, the average travel speed in the Kansas City metro area—41.1 mph—is much faster than in Minneapolis/St. Paul, 29.4 mph.

Why are Twin Cities roadways so congested?

Funding is always a legitimate issue, and Minnesota’s legislature took a step in the right direction this year with its transportation bill. But the unreported cause of the extraordinary delays suffered by Twin Cities drivers is the misplaced priorities of the Metropolitan Council and MnDOT.

Agencies’ strategy shifts from reducing congestion. Those agencies specifically disclaim relieving traffic congestion as a priority. MnDOT’s most recent Annual Minnesota Transportation Performance Report explains, “MnDOT expects congestion to remain the same or increase as the region continues to grow. Since 2010, MnDOT’s strategy has shifted from reducing congestion toward providing alternatives to congested travel.” Taking a similarly defeatist tone, the Met Council wrote in its 2030 transportation plan, “The Council recognizes that congestion will not be eliminated or significantly reduced in the Metropolitan Area.”

Agencies prioritize future spending on rail and bikes. Instead of making a serious effort to reduce congestion, Minnesota’s agencies prioritize alternative modes of transportation like light rail trains and bi- cycles. For example, the Met Council’s 2040 plan calls for spending $6.9 billion in state and regional funds on transit capital improvements and only $700 million in state funds on increasing road capacities. In- credibly, the Council proposes that an equal amount in state funds—$700 million—be spent on bike paths, pedestrians, and safety. But those methods of transportation carry only infinitesimal proportions of total travel in the metropolitan area. Moreover, on top of diverting money from congestion relief, light rail and bike lanes have increased congestion and will continue to do so as more are built out.

Plans ignore people’s preferences and, instead, try to change behavior. Met Council plans prioritize getting people out of their cars by directing denser housing developments along transit corridors connected to central cities and by making streets more usable by bikes at the expense of cars. Research shows these efforts fail to alter driving habits. That’s because the whole strategy is based on an obsolete, polycentric version of a city in which jobs are located in downtowns when jobs are in fact dispersed across the entire region.

There is no moral advantage to prioritizing transit.

The Met Council’s emphasis on reducing driving in favor of transit carries with it the implicit assumption that transit is somehow more moral, ethical, or sustainable than driving. But, if anything, it’s transit that is the less moral approach. Trains are less safe, transit uses more energy, and there is little to no pollution advantage. Moreover, there are far better ways than fixed-line transit to get lower-income people to jobs.

How can the Twin Cities address the congestion problem? There are, broadly speaking, four approaches to congestion: 1) adding new capacity; 2) making sure that traffic never exceeds roadway capacities; 3) increasing the number of vehicles that can move per hour; and 4) ignoring congestion while providing alternative modes of travel.

A combination of one and two make the most eco- nomic sense. However, the Metropolitan Council has chosen the fourth approach, ignoring congestion and providing alternatives that tend to be used only by a minority of people. This paper concludes by presenting institutional changes that might bring driver preferences into closer alignment with the economics of the roadway.

Minnesota lawmakers recently took the first step toward making congestion relief a priority. The transportation bill that Republicans passed in the House and the Senate, signed by Gov. Mark Dayton, will add $1.4 billion in spending on transportation in the next budget cycle and $5 billion over 10 years.

There is no reason why the Twin Cities cannot have a highway system adequate to meet the needs of residents, but achieving that goal will require a drastic re-ordering of priorities away from transit and toward roads and highways.

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