Plan now to avoid traffic nightmare

How bad is Bay Area highway traffic going to become in the next 25 years? Worse than Los Angeles today, according to a new report by the Reason Foundation, a free-market think tank in Washington, D.C.

“Building Roads to Reduce Traffic Congestion in America’s Cities” uses Texas Transportation Institute data to project that by 2030 the San Francisco Bay Area — currently number four in U.S. road congestion — will become one of 11 metro areas requiring at least 75 percent more time to make a trip during peak hours than in off-peak periods. This means your 30-minute commute would become a grinding 52 minutes, twice daily.

The think-tank argues that today’s public policy is helping boost long-term traffic congestion in the Bay Area by spending 64 percent of planned transportation funding on public transit, even though 80 percent of the region’s commuters drive to and from work while only 10 percent get where they need to go by bus, rail or ferry.

The Reason Foundation remedy is both controversial and somewhat politically incorrect. But it raises important issues that are well worth considering, especially if the massive California infrastructure bond measure is approved on the November ballot.

“Contrary to conventional wisdom, it is possible for America to ‘build out’ of severe congestion, and it is relatively inexpensive to do so,” said University of North Carolina professor David Hartgen, the study’s lead author.

For the Bay Area, the report recommends widening our highways by adding 2,261 miles of new lanes — many of them toll lanes or truck-only lanes. This could save 314 million productive hours lost in gridlock. It would cost $29.2 billion, which comes to about $257 for each Bay Area resident.

“We know the vast majority of Americans need to drive cars and that truckers haul 80 to 90 percent of our economy’s goods,” said Reason Foundation director of transportation Robert Poole. “Unless we take significant action to add capacity where commuters have shown they want and need it, our economy and quality of life will take a pounding from congestion.”

A contrasting view comes from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, where a spokesman warned that dramatic expansion of the Bay Area highway network would convert this region into another smoggy, sprawling and freeway-split Los Angeles.

Certainly it is a far more warm and fuzzy feeling to believe that people really would prefer using public transit if it made their commute faster, cheaper and more convenient. But if the Reason Foundation report is correct that it is an irreversible trend for commuters to prefer the flexibility of driving and to opt for cheaper new homes in far-off suburbs, then we do need to look harder at how our transportation funding is spent.

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