We can't build our way out of congestion
By William H. Hudnut III
World-class cities have world-class infrastructure. Katrina and the levee damage in New Orleans and the collapse of the Interstate 35 bridge in Minneapolis are tragic reminders that our infrastructure — so critical to the ability of our cities to grow and thrive — is often taken for granted until it fails.
A few weeks ago, the Urban Land Institute and Ernst and Young released a new report: Infrastructure 2008. Unlike other countries, America has no national plan for reducing congestion and improving the flow of people and goods throughout the country, no plan for integrating various transport modes — railroads, mass transit, highways, airports and seaports — into our land-use planning, no plan for linking global gateway cities, no plan for high-speed inter-city rails, no plan for accommodating population growth, and no plan for creating more sustainable cities and suburbs or for reducing our carbon footprint through enlightened infrastructure planning and land-use policy.
My attention was recently intrigued by a June 18 headline that proclaimed: "Honolulu's traffic among worst in U.S." The accompanying article noted that Honolulu ranked 38th worst among America's top 100 cities, and quoted a Seattle-based study (INRIX) that asserted: "If you happen to be driving on a Thursday from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. on (Honolulu's) main highways, you're no longer in the Aloha State...You're in the worst place and worst hour of any single roadway in the U.S." WOW! Talk about an infrastructure crisis!
Well, what's to be done? First, recognize that we cannot build our way out of congestion. In Montgomery County, Md., where I live, the director of planning, Royce Hansen, told me: "Adding lane capacity and even facilitating greater speeds on the overcrowded Rockville Pike is a losing proposition. What we need to do is to increase mixed-use density at key centers, which can reduce the carbon footprint of development, facilitate use of transit, walking and biking, and if well-designed with a good internal grid, actually reduce congestion."
Second, build more compactly. Higher densities do not mean warehousing people in high rises. Good design can finesse issues of density, as examples all around the United States show. Transit-oriented development could bring mixed-use compact development around transit stops, which would serve as a healthy, helpful antidote to sprawl.
Third, reduce dependence on the automobile. We need our cars, but with gas prices going through the roof and global warming threatening to burn the floor under us, alternative modes of transportation must be developed. That means light rail, buses, bus rapid transit and walking/biking trails, in my opinion, which ought to work well in a linear city like Honolulu. Construction will be expensive, as your readers know only too well, but cobbling together public and private sources of funds should be able to do the trick.
Freeways really aren't free, so why not put a toll bridge on some of our roads? Or institute VMT (vehicle miles traveled) pricing? Or try congestion pricing, as they do in London? To say nothing of that user fee known as the gasoline tax. Understandably, politicians don't like to raise taxes, fearing voter retribution. But consider this: The Federal Highway Trust Fund, the country's primary source of funding for roads and mass transit, will approach insolvency next year if the relatively paltry 18 cents per gallon federal gas tax isn't increased. Many Americans probably think the gas tax is too high already, but compare our total tax at the pump (about 40 cents per gallon) to those in Europe where gas taxes average $4.75 per gallon.
No one wants to pay more for driving, especially when people depend so much on their cars to get around. Perhaps if we built more compact, walkable, mixed-use communities accessible by transit, we wouldn't have to drive so much. After all, the most fuel-efficient car ever made is the one you don't have to drive.
William H. Hudnut III is a senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C., and former mayor of Indianapolis. He will speak on this topic at the ULI Hawaii District Council tomorrow. He wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.