By Dom Nozzi
I was called by the media in late 2013 for any comments I might have about a proposed road widening in Orlando, Florida. Here is what I said.
First, it has been known for several decades now that widening a road does not reduce congestion durably or sustainably. That is, after about 3-5 years, a widened road generally starts experiencing the same level of congestion it had earlier, if not worse.
Congestion reduction – in theory – can be reduced more long term if tolls are used and the toll price is properly calibrated to discourage “low-value” car trips (trips to, say, rent a video at rush hour, or trips that could have occurred on different, less substantial routes).
However, in the case of the Orlando project, while tolls are proposed, the project will be adding new lanes to be tolled, and leaving the existing untolled roads as untolled. In effect, such a project will add more capacity (carry more daily car trips) even though the new lanes are tolled. Because of the “triple convergence” concept that Anthony Downs played a large part in popularizing, there is a latent demand for more car travel on the road in question (some trips are currently being discouraged by the congestion, and are therefore happening at non-rush hour times or on different routes). Since some of the car trips that are currently on the existing untolled highway will shift to the toll lanes, new car trips will be induced to use the free pre-existing lanes, which now have new capacity created by the trips that have shifted to the toll lanes. In effect, then, even with the new lanes being tolled, the proposal will be adding enlarged capacity by adding the new lanes. And the triple convergence makes it inevitable that the untolled existing lanes will again become congested in 3-5 years.
Given that, the project will not be reducing congestion in the long term on the currently untolled roads. While the project will not reduce congestion long term, it will have one consequence for the region, and it is highly detrimental: By adding new capacity, the project will be further dispersing residential, commercial, and job growth into even more remote locations. Orlando will become more sprawled. And will achieve no long-term reduction in congestion on the free lanes. If the objective is to reduce — long term — the congestion on the current free lanes, the project is irresponsible, counterproductive and ruinous.
Second, a number of national sources are reporting something that has never been seen before in the US: Peak miles traveled (VMT). See, for example, this source: http://people.hofstra.edu/geotrans/eng/ch3en/conc3en/vehiclemilesusa.html
It is highly wasteful for state, local or national government to be adding road capacity at a time when there is not only a fiscal crisis, but at a time when it appears there is a long term peak or reduction in VMT. Future generations will rightly be appalled that our generation continued to widen roads at a time when it was obvious that widening did not reduce congestion durably, and continued to do so even when we started seeing a peak and decline in VMT. The fact that all levels of government are suffering severely from fiscal woes only makes the on-going road widenings even more inexcusable. This is true even if the tolls fully pay for the new lanes, as the sprawl and newly-induced car trips will add substantial new, long term costs to the Orlando region.
A much more desirable plan for Orlando would be to convert existing highway lanes to tolled lanes, rather than building new lanes. Under that scenario, the region would have a chance to reduce congestion long term.
IF the toll prices are calibrated properly.
By not building new lanes to widen the highway – by tolling existing lanes instead – Orlando has a good chance of seeing beneficial outcomes: More infill, a healthier business climate (particularly for smaller and existing businesses), less town center vacancy, more stable (or improving) property values, more per capita transit trips, less fuel consumption, and less air emissions, to name a few.