Pawlenty must support mass transit

Governor-elect Tim Pawlenty’s proposed solution to the problem of metro area traffic congestion is simple: the construction of new roads and the widening of existing throughways. Unfortunately for Twin Cities area residents, Pawlenty’s proposed remedy for traffic gridlock will not solve the area’s congestion problem and will create a host of new social costs and ills.

A body of research studying the phenomenon called “induced traffic” has shown new lanes tend to lower the private marginal cost of automobile transportation to such a point that use demand for the new lanes skyrockets. Much of this induced traffic represents automobiles that were not on the road during rush hour before the new lanes were built. Therefore, new lanes can quickly become congested during rush hour without significantly reducing congestion in the older lanes. Further, even if the induced traffic effect turned out to be low, the projected 45 percent growth in metro area households by 2030 will surely lead to the eventual clogging of any new lanes.

Not only will new lanes not solve the area’s congestion problem, but it will also exacerbate pollution and land-use problems already plaguing the metro area. More lanes and automobile traffic will lead to higher levels of ground ozone in summer months, increased emissions of greenhouse gases, higher counts of fine particulates and air toxins, and the increased loss of valuable green space. The financial cost to the Twin Cities of higher automobile pollution is also a concern. The Twin Cities are close to being found in nonattainment with federal ozone standards because of increased automobile pollution, a status that imposes significant regulatory costs on nonattainment areas. As the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce has noted, these additional costs will make Minnesota businesses less competitive in the global marketplace.

As metropolitan areas such as Atlanta and Washington, D.C., are discovering, smart and efficient regional transportation plans include significantly expanded public transit funding and targeted road building where needed. Pawlenty has said he will only support public transit projects that are immediately efficient. As Pawlenty surely knows, almost all business enterprises, whether private or public, are not models of efficiency at first; it can take years before well-run enterprises operate in the black. This is especially true of enterprises like public transit that involve large up-front capital costs. By demanding immediate returns on public transit projects, Pawlenty is seeking to severely limit the transportation options available to Twin Cities residents now and in the future.

Unfortunately, it’s these exact public transit options, and not exclusively new lanes, that could lead to a reduction in highway congestion in the future, increased health of area residents, a better business climate and a retention of valuable green space. And just as important to Pawlenty – who campaigned on government accountability and efficiency – and all Minnesotans who demand fiscal responsibility in their government, the aggregate value of these myriad benefits over time will exceed any initial deficits in new public transit operation costs.