Metro’s Congestion Study

The Portland Business Alliance, Metro, and others got decent ink this morning about a report they purchased on the costs of congestion, and a proposed $6 billion plan to address it.

Both the Oregonian and the Tribune reported it as, well, media tend to report on economic studies — go with the press release. Skimming the report, a couple things struck me.

First, more than half of the benefits projected are in personal time benefits ($418 million a year). Economists rightly note that these benefits should be measured. But there is substantial disagreement on how to value these costs. For example, if people are on the cell phone in the car (gasp!), are they really losing the time? And if people are choosing to spend their time caught in congestion, instead of on a bike, in transit, changing jobs, or creating toll roads to avoid congestion, is it accurate to project the value of that time as an hourly wage? I didn’t see at quick glance, how the economists measured the time saved in the report, but it’s a pretty mushy subject. If you take these out, the costs and benefits of building are roughly equal — the region may as well do nothing.

Second, I was surprised at how low the return was overall. Even accepting the personal time benefit measurement, spending money on traffic congestion only pays back two dollars per dollar spent. There are probably many other ways to spend public money that would have much higher benefit-cost ratios, as well as higher net present value of net benefits.

As far as the overall goal of encouraging more money for road expansion: I think folks are dreaming if they think that voters, who recently defeated a gas tax increase by a 7-to-1 margin, will want to pony up another $6 billion for benefits that certain businesses and individuals get disproportionate amounts of. Congestion may be a problem — but its solution is far away due to triple convergence (see Anthony Downs), and our lack of desire to tax or toll.

A final note, I didn’t take the time to note whether the time lost due to construction delays was factored in as a cost. It often isn’t, and indeed, sometimes highway expansions cause more time lost than they save when finished.

17 responses to “Metro’s Congestion Study”

  1. We didn’t want to pony up for liteRail, so we voted it down not once, but twice. The politicians found a way to take our road money and dump it into that albatross, along with the eastbank esplanade.

    Hundreds of millions of dollars peed away on pet projects rather than getting the job done and funding the needed infrastructure.

    And you still don’t get it.

  2. I actually find some things to be optimistic about in this study. Chief among these is that it begins to put the effect of under-investing in the transportation system into terms the business community can relate to.

    Of course the question becomes what investments we would make if we convinced the region to invest more deeply. The study uses the ‘preferred system’ from the Regional Transportation Plan (RTP), which is not a bad start, since at least there is some thought and planning behind it. But having been on TPAC for three years, I know that the ‘constrained’ system (the one we know how to pay for) gets a LOT more focus.

    In reality though, if we were to use a ballot measure, as other cities have done, to seek new funding, we would need to craft a politically acceptable (popular?) set of projects to get the votes to pass. The question is whether these would really create a balanced system. I think it’s possible, but by no means certain.

    The next RTP update (which I’ll be posting about soon) will be a critical place to continue the specifics of this conversation.

    Nowhere did the report talk about rising energy costs. I can’t help but think that the prediction that truck traffic will grow 120% over the plan period (compared to 40% for passenger traffic) might not survive $5.00/gallon gasoline. I hope the RTP will begin to grapple with this.

    In passing, I think that it’s interesting that on the very first day the Tribune has done editorials, they editorialized on this topic (of course, Steve Clark from the editorial board was on the committee that chartered the study.)

  3. I was also chagrined to hear that I am part of the problem. E-commerce deliveries were cited as one of the growth factors for truck traffic. So I should skip Amazon and walk down to Powells :-)

  4. I don’t understand why everybody assumes that ALL freight MUST be shipped on a truck. It makes no sense when rail shipping is much more efficient. The quickest way to ease traffic would be to get all trucks off the road.

    I went to college near Chicago and the amount of trucks on their freeways is astounding, probably more than half of the congestion is due to trucks, incredibly inefficient. Why not invest in better railroads? Then traffic would never affect the cost of shipping again (aside from local deliveries)! The perfect plan.

    If truck traffic will grow over 120% in Portland, why are we still thinking about using them? It’s idiotic.

    You’re also right about congestion due to construction, and it’s not just during the initial construction of the new roads or lanes. In Chicago they assumed they could build themselves out of congestion. The result? Nearly all the freeways are under construction nearly all the time, causing the most horrendous traffic jams 24 hours a day. The more roads we have the more often will will have to fix them, causing more traffic. Building more roads CANNOT reduce traffic, even if we spend $6.2 billion. How can people not see this? Let’s think of ways to reduce traffic’s impact on our every day lives. Increasing transit service, bike opportunities, mixed use zoning, etc..

    And Jay… come on… is that any sort of argument?

  5. Rail is definitely an opportunity. The problem is that the freight lines are in private ownership, and the owners are not investing in maintenance and capacity enhancement.

    I’ve heard at least one trucker suggest that the government should own the rails. Pretty radical for a trucker :-)

  6. I had the same thoughts about rail. The current rail system is approaching capacity if not past it, especially in hub areas like Portland. Chicago is starting a major public investment in rail, with significant private contribution and commitments to meeting publicly decided outcomes for freight and passenger mobility through increased coordination between carriers.

    the current rail system is like having every airline having their own airport and making it difficult for passengers to move from one airline to another. Public ownership may be one idea but more important is increased cooperation between rail companies, something that we should be able to expect given that huge public giveaways were the source of the capital to build the rail lines in this country.

  7. Well, its an interesting question: which generates more congestion?

    All the people driving to Powells to pick up a book – where the books are delivered in a few trucks…

    Or all the trucks on the roads delivering all the books to all the people that could have driven to Powells.

    Hmm, interesting question…

  8. The approach the Dutch are beginning to explore is having a neighborhood depot. Your delivery gets dropped at the depot (along with everyone else’s) and you walk or bike to the depot to get your stuff.

  9. Three comments:

    1) Rex suggests that the “business community” is finally sitting down with transportation agencies. But I think talking about the “business community” in transportation circles has been a misnomer for a long time. Largely the people from the business community that get involved are those with a large stake in continued investment in transportation facilities. In some cases, that is because they build those facilities or supply those that do. In some cases, they own land or are developing in areas that depend on improved transportation access. In other cases, it is because their jobs are to make use of the facilities. The transportation people at Intel no-doubt consider transportation to be very important, but at the e-commerce conference a few years ago the Intel representatives all but dismissed transportation as an important consideration in their business decisions.

    While the report lists several metrics by which Portland business success is more dependent than other cities of the same size, it lists none of the factors that might make it less dependent. That is not surprising in a report commissioned to support increased investment in transportation – specifically more road construction.

    Focus groups and polling have showed that while most people are not tha concerned about traffic that there concern increased dramatically when it is suggested that transportation problems will damamge the region’s competiveness. This study was commissioned to provide support for that new approach to selling transportation investments to the public. We ought to approach its conclusions with some scepticism.

    I suspect you would hear a more balanced message from the business community the minute you suggest paying for the new transportation facilities by raising taxes on the businesses that benefit. If there really is a 2-1 payback on every dollar invested then I would think they would see that as more than paying for itself.

    I think Evan is correct however, that even that payback is not all that great. According to a study by the Federal Reserve the greatest payback on public investment is from early childhood education that prepares kids for school. Which brings us to point two.

    2) Unlike Chris, its not clear to me that the best investment for the regional economy is in new transportation facilities. Obviously, I support adding new alternatives to using autos. But most of those, with the exception of the rail systems, are relatively modest capital projects. Our transportation problems are not caused by a lack of investment, but misappropriation of the available resources to adding auto capacity that simply moves the congestion to another location. Increasing those investments doesn’t improve the region’s business climate, although it might benefit specific businesses in some locations.

    I think it is a mistake for alternative transportation advocates to get caught in the same trap as the auto folks are. Our goal ought to be more livable communities. That means having a thriving economy with living wage jobs. But we ought to measure transportation investments in terms of their impact on the community as a whole. Paying for improved education, affordable housing, green spaces, drug treatment and a lot of other needed services have to be balanced against the benefits from specific transportation investments.

    I think one of the strongest arguments the alternative transportation community can make is the low cost of many of the improvements we are looking for. Again, that is not true of streetcar or light rail or high speed rail. But striping bike lanes, improving the pedestrian environment, requiring pedestrian friendly development and even traffic calming and the regional trails system are relatively low cost investments compared to the high ticket items being sought for auto capacity. We ought to make the point that the payback from those investments is a lot larger than the 2-1 ratio for investments overall. And we can actually afford them, rather than the mega-projects that we spend our regionally planning dollars on.

    3) The idea of rail as an alternative to truck freight is, I think, an illusion. Its not at all clear what public investments would attract a substantial amount of freight from trucks to rail. There may be some of the traffic along I-5 and into the ports that would make use of rail with the propre investments. But while the rail study for the I-5 corridor found several investments that would improve rail operations in the region, I don’t think they concluded that those investments would actually increase the use of rail.

    And, as Chris notes in his comments about e-commerce, a lot of freight is local. As I recall, the consensus at the e-commerce conference was that the long-range impact of e-commerce would be to reduce traffic by consolidating many trips into a single truck trip. Its not surprising, given its origins, that this report appears to assume the contrary.

    Obviously buying a book at Powells and carrying it home on the bus is better than either driving to the store or having the item delivered. Its also obvious that having a single truck deliver is better than everyone getting in their car and driving to Walmart. And getting a book from the local library is probably even better.

  10. To be fair, the report is not a pure road love-fest. It notes that transit is an important tool to reduce growth in congestion. I did notice that there were some strategies however that did not get a lot of discussion.

    – Giving priority to trucks. If moving goods and services is the big economic issue, why not create tools to give trucks priority at key bottlenecks? If we can figure how how to give priority to transit vehicles, surely we could do the same for cargo.

    – A big part of the costs of congestion were attributed to uncertainty due to ‘incidents’ (accidents). Are there tools to improve incident management that could reduce this unpredictability without huge capital investments in lanes? The COMET trucks were a step in this direction. Is there more we can do?

  11. The neighboring depot idea would work wonders in NW Portland. Especially for people like me who live in apartments, FedEX and UPS will not deliver packages to your house unless you are home to accept them – so for those of us who are never home from 8-5 and are actually working, we have to wait 3+ days for them to stop trying to deliver the package, the drive (or get a friend to drive us) all the way out to their stupid location out on Swan Island to pick it up. If they could partner with the local Kinko’s to have them held there – or delivered there to start with – I would welcome it, because it could mean I could pick those packages up at any time/hour.

    I actually talked to them about this several times, while trying to pick up packages… some companies that deliver with FedEX have contracts that require the packages to be delivered to your door; they cannot be held at any alternate FedEX/Kinko’s locations. This is an assinine policy.

  12. Back in the 90’s when I worked for the paper industry, we had the forest products folks over for a day to discuss the Old Growth issue. Over lunch one of their delegation noted that the industry was going to have to convert to second growth eventually, but needed the old growth to get through the transition. “So you will convert.” I colleague said; “Oh yes, but we’d like to do it over 20 years.” “But you could start the conversion now and save the old growth. Right?”
    I think of this conversation when I read or hear another plea for more “transportation investment”…read “roads.” We can spend another several $billion, but when that new lane or bridge opens, it will be full and we are going to have to better manage demand, incidents, etc. Why not start doing that now and save the money, not to mention the energy and other environmental benefits that follow.

  13. “the report is not a pure road love-fest. It notes that transit is an important tool to reduce growth in congestion.”

    With all due respect Chris, identifying transit’s value in terms of its benefit to those who use automobiles is part of the problem.

    First its not really true. Congestion is self-limiting and if transit were not available people would find other alternatives to reduce use of roads when they are congested. The advantage of transit is that it allows the people who use it to have access to jobs, shopping and entertainment while avoiding congestion. And that is an important benefit to employers, merchants and entertainers, helping to produce a thriving economy.

    Second, this is why Lenny’s arguments about providing space for UPS trucks falls flat with the business community. They recognize that every person on transit provides space for another person in an auto. The UPS truck will be caught in congestion regardless of the investment in transit or roads.

    If you want to provide capacity for freight you need to manage the use of automobiles. Since people who use autos in congestion are already willing to pay the price of congestion, to reduce congestion you are going to have to use measures that are even more coercive than the congestion itself is. I doubt that is politically viable in Portland or anywhere else in the United States.

  14. “Ross, so then the strategy should be to give trucks priority over cars, right? How can the freight community object to that (he asks ironically)?”

    Of course they don’t. But I doubt they believe that political leaders are prepared to give trucks priority. Quite the contrary, you hear “freight doesn’t vote” as one of the maxims of the freight guys involved in transportation decisions. And the alternative transportation community has hardly been an ally in making the case that priority on our roads and streets has to be given to moving goods rather than people.

  15. The strategy needs to be to move people, goods and services, not vehicles.

    I would argue that there are more travel options for the people, so the alternative transportation community SHOULD argue for priority for trucks.

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