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Wednesday, February 22, 2006

They Just Don't Get It

During a town hall speech on Tuesday in Northern Virginia Gov. Kaine was booed for expressing interest in building "express toll lanes."

According to the Washington Post, Randy Salzman of Charlottesville said "I don't see how you really address the problem of getting us to drive less...really, that's the problem." (note: the town hall meeting took place in Woodbridge...if he really is from Charlottesville he had to have driven)

No Randy, the problem is that our "traditional" response to congestion is to try and get people out of their cars and not add capacity. Government tries to discourage use when demand exceeds supply. In the market, excess demand or congestion, would trigger additional investment and added capacity. I'll tackle this issue two ways.

First, its a pipe dream to get people out of their cars. Frankly, some people like driving. They like the freedom and flexibility in having their car - controling their schedule, where they go, when etc. Simply because people like Randy think you should live a different way (say perhaps on top of a metro station) doesn't make it right. People will always make choices -- those who buy in Woodbridge realize that their commute to DC will be long. But they can afford a house with a yard and good schools. A new 2 bedroom 1,100 sq ft condo in Arlington with 3 blocks of a metro is going for $560,000! That may be ideal for Randy but its not for everyone - and his views on how or where others should be irrelevant.

Bottom line: simply telling people to stop driving won't work. telling people to live closer isn't realistic either. Life is all about trade offs.

Second, let's start with a comparison. Take the Telecommunications industry. When the Federal government deregulated the industry - allowing traditional market forces work - some $85 billion has been invested since 1996...by private companies to expand the network and provide more services. When their network gets congested, they invest more to keep customers happy. Is there a lesson here?

Now of course you're all thinking, well if we add more capacity won't that actually encourage more people to drive? That's known as "induced demand" in the planning world. What this really does is measur our failure to adequately invest in roads to begin with. Truth is, however, that we're reaching our peak in demand load. Think about it, everyone you know has a car and probably already drives. Congestion in the US really didn't begin to increase significant until AFTER 1980 - about a decade after we stopped seriously investing in new capacity.

Bottom line: according to the Texas Transportation Institute only those regions that increased road capacity to match rising travel demand were able to make serious headway on congestion.

Transit can't do it. People want their cars. People want homes with yards. New capacity that is "priced," that creates economic decision making is the only way to help relieve congestion in the Commonwealth.

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