Metro congestion even worse


Twin Cities rush-hour commuters waste nearly $800 and the equivalent of a work week sitting in traffic each year, and the problem keeps getting worse, according to the latest Urban Mobility Report from the Texas Transportation Institute.

The institute documented average delays of 43 hours a year on Twin Cities freeways in 2005, tied for 23rd worst in the United States and in a league with cities such as Boston, Chicago and New York. Congestion here is growing at the nation’s fifth-fastest rate, behind only Dallas, Washington and two southern California regions.

These findings contradict Minnesota Department of Transportation studies contending that traffic on Twin Cities freeways has eased for three straight years. MnDOT and TTI use different congestion measures, but the Texas group’s approach is considered the gold standard in assessing freeway performance.

TTI calculated that the nearly 1.4 million Twin Cities rush-hour commuters in 2005 wasted 41.8 million gallons of fuel stuck in traffic, at $2.19 a gallon that year. Also lost over the year were an average of 43 hours per driver valued at $14.60 per hour for individuals and $77.10 for businesses.

That brought the total cost to $1.1 billion, or $790 per peak traveler, up from $705 the year before. Just to stay at those levels, TTI said, the Twin Cities would need to add 81 lane-miles of freeways and 22 million trips by transit riders or carpoolers each year. But critics of the revenue increases needed to do that, or to improve the situation, complain that it might cost families up to $500 a year in new taxes.

That looks like false economy. True, even huge investments in transportation infrastructure won’t bring the “congestion tax” down overnight. But such steps will stem the rise and eventually reduce these hidden costs. In 1988, when Minnesota’s gasoline tax was last raised (by 3 cents a gallon), the cost of congestion was $211 per peak traveler. Even adjusting for inflation, that was less than half the 2005 cost.

Peak-period traffic flows have been slowing for years on Twin Cities freeways despite an infusion over the past decade of about $1 billion in surplus general funds and trunk highway borrowing into loosening bottlenecks. That may seem like a lot of money, but MnDOT estimates that the state needs an extra $2.4 billion in transportation investments in each of the next six years just to stop falling further behind.

Unfortunately, that assessment hasn’t moved MnDOT’s boss, Gov. Tim Pawlenty, to support significant new road and bridge funding. Twice he has vetoed bipartisan legislation that would erase no more than one-third of MnDOT’s estimated shortfall. While scuttling a 10-cent-per-gallon boost in the state gas tax in 2005, he argued, mysteriously, that a 5-cent increase wouldn’t be enough to address the problem.

But after the Interstate 35W bridge collapse last month, Pawlenty expressed openness to a nickel hike in the 20-cent tax, whose value has fallen with inflation to 12 cents since 1988. Quickly, however, he qualified his apparent policy turnaround by saying the increase should be temporary and offset by a cut in income tax, the only Minnesota levy soundly based on the ability to pay.

Legislators said thanks but no thanks. After agreeing to a one-day special session solely for flood relief in southeastern Minnesota, they are now aiming at taking action when the 2008 regular session begins Feb. 12. The bridge disaster and worsening road conditions statewide should combine by then to increase bipartisan resolve to veto-override levels.

Monday evening, the state House Transportation Finance Committee got an earful of that from local government and business leaders in Willmar, Minn., far from big city traffic woes but equally in need of transportation investments that are critical to economic growth.

“Put that transportation bill back on the floor,” Kandiyohi County Board Chairman Harlan Madsen told the legislators. “The time is not now. The time is past.”