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Fighting highway congestion: It doesn't have to be a losing battle

Forgive the untimeliness of this blog. I’ve spent the past two-and-a-half months at home with my new baby, blissfully unaware that life exists beyond dirty diapers and late-night feedings. So it wasn’t until this week that I saw the Texas Transportation Institute’s 2007 Urban Mobility Report, released back in September.

Funny that a link to that report should pop up in my email inbox. When I came back to work last week, I swore traffic in my hometown of Milwaukee had tripled since late August.

OK, so it hasn’t really tripled. But when you have a little one at home that you hate to leave in the morning and can’t wait to get back to in the evening, you suddenly become very aware of anything and everything that keeps you away from them — namely, my 15-mile, 45-minute drive home from work.

Go ahead, laugh. I realize that in many large cities, traveling 15 miles in 45 minutes is like running a four-minute mile. In fact, Milwaukee was ranked the 59th-most congested U.S. city in terms of annual delay per traveler, according to TTI’s report, so I realize I have drivers from 58 other cities playing me the world’s saddest song on the world’s smallest violin.

But it’s got me wondering: How do drivers in those 58 cities handle it? In a day and age where “rush hour” is beginning earlier and lasting longer, and people are taking drastic measures to avoid sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic (one rail industry supply guy once told me that when he lived in L.A., he’d go to work in the wee hours of the morning, then catch another hour of sleep once he got there before starting his work day), you have to ask: Have we really resigned ourselves to the idea that 6 a.m. traffic jams on 24-lane highways will become a way of life? I sure hope not.

But then, what’s the answer to fighting today’s growing congestion problem? Encourage people to use public transit is an obvious one, but many of today’s systems are at or near capacity, too. Transit agencies struggle enough as it is to fund day-to-day operations, let alone large-scale expansion projects. Take more freight off the roads? Sure, but freight-rail networks are capacity-strained, as well. Expanding the highway system has always been a popular option, but in a lot of metropolitan areas, we’re running out of room for roads.

The only way we’re going to be able to solve the congestion problem is by taking a multi-modal approach — and very soon. As it is, traffic (both freight and passenger) is growing far faster than any one transportation mode can handle.

Next month, the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission is expected to submit to Congress their recommendations for ensuring the nation’s freight and passenger railroads, ports and highways continue to serve the needs of the country. The commission was created under SAFETEA-LU to study the national surface transportation network and Highway Trust Fund, then develop a plan for preserving them.

The 12-member commission, chaired by U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, has held 10 field meetings since May 2006 to hear firsthand from national transportation advocates, policymakers, industry leaders, labor unions and the general. Their findings will serve as a reference for members of Congress as they consider SAFETEA-LU reauthorization in 2009.

Developing such a report is a huge undertaking and I, for one, am anxious to see what the commission has come up with. I hope that freight and passenger railroads will play a significant role in the plan — and that Congress then funds expansion plans accordingly.

Posted by: Angela Cotey | Date posted: 11/8/2007

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Posted by Dr. David Morris on 11/9/2007 2:32:38 PM

Highway congestion, highway maintainence costs and improved higway safety could be addressed by requiring that goods shipped more than 300 miles be transported by rail or air. Exceptions could be made by a fee of $50 per mile beyond the 300-mile limit. The fee would be put into a national fund used for the construction of new rails needed for the additional traffic. These NEW rails would be federally owned and maintained as are the federal highways.

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Posted by Dan Lauzon on 11/12/2007 8:56:44 PM

Did you know that the infamous "Big Dig" here in Boston started out as a Rail Link between North and South Stations? Back during the first Dukakis Administration the project was proposed as a joint highway/rail. The Duke was defeated by Ed King but then re-elected after one term, by then the rail component was gone. We still need the Rail Link but after the massive cost over runs and subsequent finger pointing this critical link may be setback decades. You should start a blog on the NTSB fatigue addition, it may prove enlightening to say the least!

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Posted by William Moorhead on 11/13/2007 9:03:19 AM

In cities with water separations of districts, such as here in the Norfolk, VA area, there should be serious consideration of passenger-only ferries integrated into a public transit system, with timetable and facilities meshed for easy transfers from one to the other. Is Norfolk considering such? Absolutely not; ferries are considered "old fashioned" as were streetcars up until twenty years ago. Perhaps the planners should consider the free water highways instead of more bridges and tunnels, which only encourage use of the private car.

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Posted by Sankar Narayan on 11/20/2007 2:28:23 AM

All the news in these columns are about the U.S. only. Please have a look at the European, Asian, Australian or South American scenerio. Many cities are going in for dramatic expansion of Mass Rapid Transport by rail mode. Smaller cities go in for Light Rail and Tram cars. If you can get hold of the International Railway Journal published from the U.K., you can have an idea of de-congestion being achieved in very large cities like London, Beijing, Shanghai, Manchester, etc. It is unfortunate that for those living in the U.S.A., there is no other world. God bless America!

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Posted by James Swidergal on 1/25/2008 3:05:52 PM

Dr. Morris...If those rails are federally owned then does that mean I could run on those tracks with my own equipment, and who would be the authorizing authority.

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