June 23, 2024

The Nerve Archive

Where Government Gets Exposed

More money for more roads might be bad

Road Work

We’re up against human nature


Several recent studies suggest that what seems to be true for South Carolina is true of all the states’ road systems: They’re not falling apart. What’s more, repaving roads and building new ones is not a good way to address at least some roadway deaths. Both conclusions fly in the face of arguments heard lately in the General Assembly in favor of raising the tax on gasoline.

Reviewing the federal Department of Transportation’s Transportation Statistics Annual Report 2016, among other studies, which summarizes statistics for all states, including South Carolina, Robert Poole concludes that these “data make it pretty clear that America’s highway and bridge infrastructure is not ‘crumbling,’ and there is no need for a massive program on that score. Far more troubling is that urban traffic congestion is soaring again as vehicle miles of travel have rebounded since the Great Recession.”

Congestion has also been raised in the course of the state gas-tax debate, as a factor that costs motorists money, in lost time. People who support raising the gas tax (or in the case of Governor Henry McMaster, borrowing instead of taxing) in order to funnel more money to the Department of Transportation assume that it can spend that money to reduce congestion — by widening roads or building new ones. But that intuitive assumption can be a trap, because it ignores the phenomenon of induced demand.

That’s why some planners watched keenly after part of a highway was recently destroyed. If building more roads relieves congestion, suddenly shutting a major road should cause it to explode: “carmageddon.”

Few cities are built around highways more than Atlanta,” Angie Schmitt writes on Streetsblog. “So when a heavily-traveled section of I-85 collapsed in a fire last week, the traffic predictions were dire. A few days into this rearrangement of the local highway system, however, Atlantans are adjusting their travel behavior in ways that keep gridlock at bay.”

Understanding why means comprehending that problems caused by human behavior, like congestion, cannot necessarily be solved by spending hundreds of millions of dollars on immovable concrete (and then you will also have the issue of having taxed or gone into debt to lay that concrete).

Advocates of borrowing or taxing more to spend more money on roads also cite the dangers of current roadways. In South Carolina, they point to the high rate of traffic fatalities.

When the federal government looks at the safety of roads, as in the Federal Highway Administration’s annual “Status of the Nation’s Highways, Bridges, and Transit” reports, it looks at three kinds of crashes: those involving cars leaving a roadway, those at intersections, and ones involving pedestrians, which tend to be the smallest group but are still significant given that thousands of pedestrians are struck and killed by motorists in the U.S. each year.

And now, pedestrian deaths are growing at a greater rate than other kinds of roads-related fatalities, reaching an estimated 5,997 in the U.S. in 2016. South Carolina has the sixth-highest rate of pedestrian fatalities.

“Increased driving due to an improved economy, lower gas prices and more walking for exercise and environmental factors are some of the likely reasons behind the estimated 11 percent spike in pedestrian fatalities in 2016,” the Associated Press reported.

But researchers say they think the biggest factor may be more drivers and walkers distracted by cellphones and other electronic devices. And alcohol remains a factor in a significant share of them. Once again, legislators and governors contemplating taxing or borrowing to build more roads with the aim of making at least some people safer could find themselves up against the heedlessness of human behavior, which can no more be changed with concrete than by conventional engineering.

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