Congestion Politics

by Carolyn Chase


As we all crawl along toward the 21st century, it seems the only thing that's not congested in our regional transportation systems is the flow of money. It's the one result that everyone administering the system agrees should be rigorously maintained and increased.

As for other results, such as reductions in commute times and competitive alternatives to the car, well, that would mean substantive and perhaps difficult changes. Mostly everyone in the system agrees there are problems and changes might be needed. But they just can't bring themselves to do anything about it. And why should they? Is there anyone or anything requiring them to improve system performance? Not that I've been able to find.

One of the key organizing principles of SANDAG, our official regional transportation planning agency is political consensus. Political consensus has seldom if ever been an effective basis for producing results from complex, expensive systems. It is, however, the time-honored way to divvy up the available cash flowing through such systems.

More than anything else, the Regional Transportation Plan is ultimately a political document designed to split up and justify the state and federal funding split among the three major insider interest groups: regional highways, local streets and transit. This covers all the major players: Caltrans, local jurisdictions represented on the SANDAG Board, and then all the rest of the agencies vie to provide some kind of mass transit from the leftovers. Everyone involved in planning and managing the system is getting something, while the rest of us are getting stuck in traffic, getting few viable alternatives, and being asked to pay more for the "pleasure."

When all these agencies and politicians get together, should we be surprised that their prescription is more tax increases for poor performance? Everyone involved sells this formula as a "balanced approach." The only problem is that what they are balancing is the split of the funding, and not actually linking it higher performance standards for the systems they are funding.

With billions of taxpayers dollars chasing projects, evidently the best our new Draft Regional Transportation Plan can offer is a system - being billed as "improved" - that will, over twenty years, purport to reduce congestion from 63 miles of congested freeway segments today to 29 miles of congested segments. They assure us we will approach this with a mere $12 billion tax increase (if we're lucky). I say lucky, because there is evidently nothing to assure even that dismal outcome.

The beginning of my education on congestion politics was awaiting me when I attempted to determine how much time San Diegans were spending trapped in traffic and how this was changing over time. Turns out that none of the documents I've reviewed reports data with respect to time, and there appears to be no requirement to do so. I was further surprised that SANDAG also does not know how many miles of congestion there are on area freeways. Although I have written about the "miles of congestion" in the past, and the new RTP is being sold to officials and the public on that basis, I have come to discover that SANDAG does not report congestion either in terms of actual miles or time. Even the somewhat venerable Union-Tribune misreported it in an editorial last week.

SANDAG looks at freeways in terms of segments - which range in size from less than a mile to many miles. The reduction in congestion figures they cite actually refers to the mileage of the segments on which the forecast demand exceeds rated capacity at "Level of Service F" - where traffic hard already been reduced to stop and go and delays at intersections are more than one minute. So each of those 63 miles represent segments where traffic will just BEGIN to back up behind that segment. The numbers they cite do not actually represent the number of miles of congestion.

I've come to think of is this way: each congested segment is like a rat moving through a snake. So really what we have is 63 POINTS along the system behind which the congestion backs up an unknown amount. (By the way, they also do not measure or account for congestion backing up into local neighborhoods.)

Congestion actually starts to back up at LOS D. The 1996 list of "Levels of Service" (LOS) for freeway segments listed more than 57 miles of segments at LOS E and more than 44 miles of segments of LOS D, in addition to the 63 miles of segments already at LOS F. (Note: Unlike other more familiar grading systems, in order to further delineate our underachievements, they have added the grade of "E" between "D" and "F " perhaps so we don't have to go directly from poor to failing.)

Interestingly enough, although SANDAG recently released a new draft of the Regional Transportation Plan (RTP), including a required update to our region's Congestion Management Plan (CMP), they have not yet released the major substantive element of the CMP, an updated LOS ratings chart for our region's freeways and major arterials. Since this has not been released, I wonder what basis they have for even concluding that their forecasts will "improve" things to "only" 29 miles of LOS F segments. They need to release that data to the public as soon as possible. But at the recent SANDAG Board meeting where new RTP documents were officially released for public comment, this omission was not even brought up.

At this same meeting, members of SANDAG's Board of Directors discussed State Senator Steve Peace's RITA proposal to reorganize agencies currently involved in transportation planning, including SANDAG. Many board members admitted that the current system "has problems" and that things could certainly be "done better." Others suggested that SANDAG mount "huge" public education campaigns to get out the word about what they do. Unfortunately, commuters get a daily education on the results of what is being done and not done.

The recently released Draft RTP which includes a required update to our region's Congestion Management Plan, provides no significant congestion management policy changes.

There is little reason to believe that those failed policies, if continued as proposed, will provide for significant congestion relief, regardless of how much money we provide. Should we really be excited that they are proposing to raise taxes by $12 billion for a system where the congestion may only go from horrible to terrible?