Saturday, May 10, 2014

Ten Years and $400 Billion in Federal Highway Spending Later, Are We Any Better Off?

We've spent $365 billion on highways and added essentially zero new drivers since 2005. Shouldn't traffic congestion be improving?

Demographic shifts and government investments seem poised to lead us to transportation nirvana... so why haven't they?

The federal government has spent $365 billion out of the Highway Trust Fund's highway account since 2005, pouring money into new roads, capacity improvements, and system preservation. At the same time, fewer people are driving, and those that are are doing it less: total annual vehicle-miles traveled haven't budged for almost a decade even as we've added 20 million new residents, and per-capita VMT has fallen significantly. The number of cars on the road has remained essentially unchanged, cars per 1,000 residents peaked in 2007, and young people are doing just fine without a driver's license, thank you.

More roads and fewer cars – that's a recipe for improved mobility and reduced congestion if I've ever heard one.

How's that working out for you?

Blowing hundreds of billions on roads hasn't helped because more roads don't reduce congestion in the long run. This isn't progress, and it shouldn't cost so much money just to tread water. If you want to reduce traffic congestion, institute a congestion charge. If you want to get people to their destinations faster, give buses dedicated lanes, build grade-separated high-capacity transit, and allow more housing next to job centers.

Imagine how much better our commutes would be if we'd spent that $400 billion on transit, bicycle, and pedestrian infrastructure that doesn't have to contend with car-generated traffic congestion. Here's to hoping we spend the next $400 billion more wisely, though I'm not holding my breath.


  1. Wow, these are awful, misleading graphs that show skyrocketing spending. The first one makes it look like spending in 2013 is 8x what it was in 2005. This is graph is

    Hell, on the second one, you just gave up and didn't bother to put a scale on it. That's basically admitting that the lines don't mean anything.

    Please, remove these graphs. They don't support your rant, they only make you look bad.

    (PS, I agree with your rant, but that's all it really is)

    1. Not sure what I could have done to be more clear that it's cumulative total spending, not annual. If you didn't have the sense to see otherwise, I'm not going to take that as a personal failing.

      The total spending is what's important, since it's what illustrates our total investment over the time period, and highlights how little progress we've made despite piling on money year after year.

      As to the second graph, perhaps "not to scale" wasn't the best choice of words, but those are all accurate trend lines -- the only reason I couldn't provide the exact units is because a graph with 5 y-axes would look silly. I provide the exact numbers from which the chart is made as a part of the chart itself though, so again, I'm not sure I agree with your assessment.