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You Can Build Your Way Out of Congestion (But Watch Your Back)

Jul 17


The 2007 Preserving the American Dream conference will be in San Jose this year, so I’ve been taking a close look at that region. San Jose definitely practices smart growth, so I presumed that, like Portland, congestion there would have greatly increased as planners tried to discourage driving.

When I examined the Texas Transportation institute’s data file for San Jose, however, I was surprised to find this was not the case. In fact, between 1989 and 1997, the amount of time the typical rush-hour commuter wasted sitting in traffic actually fell by a whopping 50 percent. During this same period, Santa Clara County (of which San Jose is the seat) gained well over 100,000 new jobs.

Who wouldn’t envy a place that could absorb that many new commuters and still cut congestion in half? How did they do it? Simple. They built new roads.

In 1984, Santa Clara County voters agreed to a ten-year, half-cent sales tax dedicated to new roads. They spent the money turning state routes 85, 87, and 237 into freeways and adding new lanes on U.S. 101 and I-880, among other freeways. Most of these improvements were completed in the early to middle 1990s.

This would have to considered an incredible success and a spit in the eye of everyone who says urban areas can’t build their way out of congestion. But then someone made a mistake (or maybe it was deliberate).

In 1990, California voters agreed to raise the state’s gasoline tax for highways. Part of the measure required all urban counties to create a “congestion management agency” that would decide how to spend the revenues to reduce congestion.

In 1995, Santa Clara County decided to merge the county’s transit district with its congestion management agency, thus creating the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) — the very same agency that I’ve previously described as the nation’s worst-managed transit agency.

This created an enormous conflict of interest. Any money that VTA decided, as the county CMA, to spend on transit, it got to keep for itself. Any money that it decided to spend on highways went to some other agency. VTA did not hesitate to take full advantage of this opportunity.

When the half-cent sales tax for highways expired, VTA put a measure on the ballot to renew it — but this time, roughly half the money went to light rail and other transit projects.

Then, in a bold move, VTA put another measure on the ballot just four years later to renew the sales tax for thirty more years. Only this time, all the money would go to transit, including an estimated $3.8 billion to extend BART to San Jose. Inundated by a slick advertising campaign that promised that the measure would reduce congestion, voters approved the extension. Why not? The previous sales tax measures did reduce congestion.

A close look at VTA’s 20-year regional transportation plan told a very different story. The plan called for spending $1.56 billion on new road capacity. Not a cent of this money would come from the new sales tax — it would all come from federal and state gas taxes.

For transit, the plan called for spending a whopping $7.3 billion, more than $6.0 billion of which came from the local sales tax. More than half of that money would go to the BART line, and almost all the rest to new light-rail or commuter-rail lines.

The plan estimated that commuters in 2020 would face about 19 percent less congestion if voters approved the sales tax than if they did not. However, the plan did not compare 2020 congestion to congestion at the time the plan was written, so it is not clear if planners expected congestion to increase or decrease if the sales tax passed.

The plan also estimated that, if the sales tax passed, 7.5 percent of commuters would take transit to work, vs. 4.2 percent if the tax did not pass. The share of commuters driving to work alone would fall from 79.4 percent without the sales tax to 75.6 percent. The share carpooling, however, would increase from 13.6 to 14.0 percent. Assuming 2 to 3 commuters per carpool, this means that the rail lines funded by the tax would take just over 4 percent of cars off the road.

Since the plan was projected to reduce congestion by 19 percent, most of that reduction would have to come from the highway improvements, not the rail transit. (Okay, if you want to be an absolutely stickler about it, this isn’t necessarily true, but let me assure you that it is true. While taking 4 percent of cars off the road could conceivably reduce congestion by 19 percent, it is both extremely unlikely and the relief would be much more transitory than that provided by new roads.)

The bottom line: Given power over the region’s congestion management programs, VTA hijacked the sales tax that was dedicated to highways so that it could build its own rail transit empire.

The result has already proven to be a disaster for transit riders. Although awash with capital funds, when the dot-com-crash came, VTA lacked the money to operate all those shiny new trains (operating costs came from another half-cent sales tax). So, between 2001 and 2005, VTA was forced to cut back bus service by 19 percent and rail service by 12 percent. Transit ridership fell by 34 percent, only part of which was due to the 15 percent decline in jobs.

VTA’s hijacking will also prove a disaster for auto drivers. I have a pretty strong suspicion that the reason VTA’s transportation plan didn’t compare current congestion with 2020 congestion is that VTA didn’t want voters to know that its plan would cause congestion to increase. Of course, the plan did not contain any alternatives that would have spent more on roads and less on rail transit, so voters have no idea how much such an alternative could have reduced congestion.

The results ain’t so hot for taxpayers in general. Increased construction costs mean that VTA will probably come back to voters for another quarter-cent sales tax so that it can build the BART line — something that would not be necessary had VTA’s plan focused on roads and buses.

This is just one more reason why transportation should be funded out of user fees instead of sales, property, or income taxes. If Santa Clara County had a highway authority that had been funded exclusively out of road tolls, that agency would never have let the transit cabal steal its money to build choo-choo trains.

Santa Clara County voters can fix the problem, at least until the contract is let to start building BART. The county should separate the transit agency from congestion management authority. Voters should repeal the half-cent sales tax for transit. VTA should give up its BART and other rail dreams.


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Reprinted from The Antiplanner