It appears that funding sources for highway and bridge maintenance and construction are going down while the costs of road and bridge building are going up.
This, of course, is a formula for delayed construction and increased traffic congestion, especially if we continue to see steady population growth across the region.
Road congestion is very costly for both businesses and commuters.
Public officials and planners may need to consider less costly but effective alternatives that would reduce congestion on existing highways, at least until the current funding difficulties are resolved.
On the national level, the Federal Highway Trust Fund, which is mostly funded with a gasoline tax, is predicted to go into deficit beginning in the year 2009.
On the state level, Arkansas needs $19 billion over the next ten years but has only $4 billion available.
On the regional level, the Northwest Arkansas 2030 Transportation Plan identified $1.9 billion in highway construction needs.
Much of this would have to come from the state and federal dollars that are not there.
Some of the road construction cost increases can be attributed to an ever increasing global demand for building materials like concrete and steel.
Also, as the price of crude oil rises above $90 a barrel, the cost of asphalt and the diesel used to fuel road building equipment will continue to increase as well.
Texas Transportation Institute’s latest annual report on urban mobility points out that traffic congestion continues to worsen in many American cities.
According to TTI’s September report, traffic congestion creates a $78 billion annual drain on the U.S. economy in terms of time lost and 2.9 billion gallons of wasted fuel.
While the report points out that congestion costs the average peak period traveler $710 per year, for smaller population regions (fewer than 500,000) such as Northwest Arkansas, this figure is about $321 dollars per year.
Given the 142,000 or so people who commute alone in Benton and Washington counties, we can estimate that Northwest Arkansas is spending more than $45 million more per year than it would if there was no traffic congestion. It makes sense that some effort and dollars should be spent on effective congestion reducing alternatives.
Some of the alternatives to new highway construction and automobile use commonly proposed by organizations such as TRIP, (The Road Information Program) a national transportation research group, include expanding capacity by:
- widening or improving intersections
- creating High Occupancy Vehicle or High Occupancy Toll lanes on existing highways
- reversible and contraflow lanes
- moveable medians
- ramp metering
- improved signalization and other forms of Intelligent Transportation System techniques
- improved crash management
- improved transit service (usually refers to adding buses and transit routes).
Other alternatives, some that involve reducing highway travel demand, should not be overlooked. Some of these methods include:
- improved pedestrian and bicycle facilities
- increased support for telecommuting;
- increased support for flexible work schedules, staggered shifts, and compressed work weeks
- ridesharing and improved park and ride facilities
- taxi service improvements
- improved access management
Besides the methods listed above, there are a couple of new ideas that hold promise.
One concept, called “Quality Routes,” was presented at a meeting of the Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations recently held in Little Rock.
A “Quality Route” would be a premium bus route that would be designed to attract riders willing to pay a little more for higher quality amenities such as premium coffee, Wi-Fi service, and other attractions.
Another idea that is beginning to attract attention is known as the “Smart Jitney.” The Smart Jitney is a system where registered riders can safely hook-up with registered and qualified drivers through cell-phones and the Internet.
Given some thought and research, public officials could find many ways to reduce traffic congestion in Northwest Arkansas without having to spend a billion dollars.
One way to do this would be to undertake a “Transportation Alternatives Analysis”, as suggested in the region’s long-range transportation plan.
Such an analysis would examine all the possible solutions for both energy and cost effectiveness. The analysis would then recommend which solutions – or best combination of solutions – would be best to pursue.
With the cost of highway construction going up and funding going down, it seems that public officials would do well to find funding for an alternatives analysis that could make a significant reduction in the millions of dollars the region wastes every year because of traffic congestion.
(Paul Justus is a regional planner with the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission. He may be reached at [email protected].)