SF Editorial: Bold plans to solve national gridlock

Bay Area rush-hour motorists sitting in traffic jams aren’t just missing dinner with friends and family, or feeling their frustration level advance to Code Red. They are also paying an annual $1,200 in lost time and fuel.

That’s the conclusion of the federal Department of Transportation, which is taking steps toward addressing the national gridlock that is decreasingour quality of life and slowly choking our economy.

Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta on Tuesday outlined the “National Strategy to Reduce Congestion in America’s Transportation Network,” a blueprint for solutions to a problem that many believe seems destined to only get worse.

It does not have to be that way, but new thinking will be required to bring some semblance of sanity back to our roadways. To be sure, the construction of more highways alone has not and cannot keep up with the increasing growth in traffic.

A Texas Transportation Institute study released last week revealed that, despite ever-increasing highway construction, U.S. travelers suffered 3.7 billion hours of delays annually and burned 2.3 billion gallons of gasoline while stuck in traffic, both marked increases over previous years, leading to an overall cost of $63.1 billion in time and fuel.

The impact on business is even more crippling. Mineta estimates that American companies lose $200 billion a year due to freight bottlenecks and delayed deliveries.

Imagine a retailer paying higher costs by keeping additional merchandise on hand as a buffer against delayed deliveries, or a distribution company finding its drivers can only make 12 deliveries a day instead of the 20 they used to make. Multiplied millions of times, the effect is of a national economy whose vitality slowly is being suffocated.

Mineta offers a slate of remedies, including fast-tracking innovative highway projects that hold the greatest potential for reducing congestion, more express bus lanes, partnering with major employers in big cities to encourage concepts like flex-time work hours, and encouraging congestion pricing, or charging more for peak-hour commuting.

In a bold bid to seek creative financing solutions, Mineta also calls for legislation that would reduce barriers to private investment in roadways. Chicago has already entered into a 99-year, $1.9 billion lease of the Chicago Skyway to a private company, and Indiana has entered into a similar deal for its state toll road. Under such deals, private contractors would operate and maintain tollways and bridges and would have the ability to raise tolls to pay off incurred debt.

Anticipating opposition, Mineta cited the importance of not remaining “wedded to the status quo” when it comes to transportation solutions. He’s right. The nation’s congestion crisis is one of our most daunting problems. Fresh ideas and innovation will be required to fix it.

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