Road Congestion and Political Gridlock

The cost of congestion continues to rise, but not enough apparently to break political gridlock on how to modernize, expand and diversify the nation's aging transportation system.A new report says bumper-to-bumper congestion on American roads and highways cost the economy $121 billion in 2011 in lost hours of work and wasted fuel. The cost of congestion is predicted to rise to almost $200 billion by 2020.

The report says Portland has the sixth worst commutes in the country, resulting from a relatively small, circular freeway system that bunches up traffic, especially when there are multiple accidents or bad weather conditions. Portlanders drive fewer miles, one of the report authors says, but travel times can be unreliable and often stressful.

Meanwhile, political gridlock in the nation's capital and many state legislatures is blocking measures to invest in roads and bridges. Roll Call's John Boyd reports President Obama backed off his call for new money for transportation in negotiations to avoid the fiscal cliff. Senators from both political parties, Boyd adds, flirted with a transportation funding package in the lame duck session last year, but gave up.

While motorists dislike congestion, they appear to hate proposals to raise the gas tax, switch to a mileage-based fee, resort to toll-ways or pay in some manner for road use if they drive an alternative fuel vehicle. An sudden, sharp jump in gas prices in the last two weeks hasn't made motorists less grumpy.

And there is a sharp divide over transit, as evidenced today by a report in The Oregonian indicating Washington initiative king Tim Eyman is teaming up with Republicans to block extension of light rail from Portland to Vancouver as part of a new I-5 bridge over the Columbia River.

The Texas A&M Transportation Institute's annual Urban Mobility Report indicated commuters and truck drivers in the Washington, D.C. area lose an extra 67 hours and 32 gallons of fuel than their counterparts in areas with less congestion. Nationwide, the report pegged the cost of congestion at $818 per commuter in 2011, with the prospect of it rising to more than $1,000 by 2020.

Many studies have underlined the conclusion that worsening congestion is impeding economic activity and affecting job growth. 

The previous Congress managed to pass a 2-year, status quo highway and transit bill, but took no action on the Highway Trust Fund that is falling behind as vehicles become more fuel efficient and the nation's infrastructure ages and is more expensive to repair or rebuild.

The Oregon and Washington legislatures face the challenge this year of approving some form of funding measures to pay for their respective $450 million shares of the cost to replace the I-5 bridge over the Columbia River. There is federal money to cover a significant portion of the bridge work needed to extend light rail into Vancouver, but a major fight remains over how to pay for its operation. The new highway bridge will have a toll to cross.

Eyman is lending his expertise to get a measure on the ballot to block Vancouver from spending any money on light rail expansion or operation. Clark County voters already have rejected a proposal to use sales tax revenue to fund the extension. Two Clark County legislators have introduced a bill to block light rail coming to Vancouver.

The battles here are hardly unique. Roll Call notes Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, faced with growing resistance to toll roads and a fee on hybrid vehicles owners, is floating the idea of replacing his state's gas tax with an incremental sales tax hike.

The beauty of light rail from Portland to Vancouver is in the eye of the beholder as opponents gather strength to block funding for a transit bridge and its operation.