FHWA aims to repave the roads under our traffic jams

February 14, 2022

John Bendel

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Oh boy. Federal money will soon flow to states for highway infrastructure projects. All those traffic bottlenecks will soon be a thing of the past, right?

Sorry, but probably not. Not any time soon, anyway. The people who expect the much-publicized, bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to relieve congestion – and that’s most people – will be disappointed.

The Federal Highway Administration, the agency that will be handing out the money for infrastructure projects, just issued a memo outlining policy for projects it will fund, projects it won’t, and projects it will release into the bureaucratic wilderness to fend for themselves.

In a recent policy memo, the FHWA outlined how project proposals by states are to be evaluated. The memo made one thing very clear: the FHWA doesn’t want to build new highways or add new lanes. Unfortunately, those are the only ways short of teleportation to ease traffic bottlenecks.

OK, so maybe they’ll approve some projects, but grudgingly and only after every other sort of project goes first.

Twice in the policy document, the FHWA refers specifically and negatively to new capacity for single-occupancy vehicles. Of course, single-occupancy vehicles include trucks.

Those who oppose projects to relieve congestion often cite what is called “induced demand” – the fact that relief from congestion after a remedial program is often short-lived. New traffic lanes simply invite more traffic, they say. But that’s like saying the grass grows back every time we cut it, so we shouldn’t cut the grass.

Hey, it’s not all bad. FHWA will green-light projects to rescue our more than 620,000 bridges from collapse. They’ll also smile upon improvements to existing travel lanes. We’ll have safer bridges and smoother roadways to crawl over through those bottlenecks.

And there are plenty of bottlenecks. The ATA’s research arm annually lists 100 of the worst in the nation. Most are in or near major metropolitan areas. They don’t include many in smaller cities and towns. Traffic backups are not simply annoying. They have serious costs that should not be glossed over. Congestion generates pollution and impedes commerce. Choke points often mean local trucks of all kinds can make fewer stops in a day, increasing the cost of each. Hyperlocally, they constrain businesses that rely on local delivery services – everything from pizza makers to auto parts suppliers.

What we have here, folks, is a serious gap between FHWA infrastructure policy and reality.

On one hand, planners, environmentalists, and the current FHWA administration clearly get the consequences of suburban sprawl and a car-centric culture. They believe we must take people out of cars and put them on buses, bicycles and foot.

On the other hand, we have vast expanses of suburbia where people require cars and trucks to access everything but air and water. Maybe that will change, but only over generations at the quickest. Meanwhile, we need cars and trucks, and while some government elements want to reduce reliance on them, others compete like mad to attract the industries that produce them.

So, it’s no surprise that we have lots of cars and trucks. Vehicle manufacturing is an international business, but in 2020 the U.S. produced approximately 8.8 million motor vehicles, according to Statista.com. That number includes “cars, light commercial vehicles, heavy trucks, as well as buses and coaches.” Overall, according to the FHWA, there are more than 272 million vehicles registered in the U.S.

Inconveniently for FHWA policy, the U.S. population is expected to grow by 1.8 million people annually, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That means 18 million more people by 2032, and that means even more cars.

If by some magic there was no increase in the number of cars, there will still be more trucks – lots more.

According to the ATA, truck freight will increase by 70% over those ten years. Railroads don’t delivery door to door, river barges can’t dock at the local Piggly Wiggly, and air carriers can’t land there. There is no alternative to trucks, and there will absolutely, positively be more of them.

The far-sighted folks at FHWA and in many state transportation departments are striving for worthy goals. They want to reduce pollution and congestion. Fewer cars will help achieve that. But disdain for motor vehicles alone will not make them go away. It will not tear down the suburbs or change the climate so we can all ride bicycles year-round. And it will most certainly not move food, fuel and all the other items we need to the places we need them.

No matter what kind of fancy lighting you shine on it, we will have more vehicles to stuff through a static, rigid highway system. Infrastructure policy that looks away from these realities, while it may fill a lot of potholes, will be a strategic failure. LL

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John Bendel is Land Line’s contributing editor-at-large. A former trucker, former editor at National Lampoon and two trucking magazines, John is an author, photographer, and freelancer. His work has appeared in the New York Times, The Washington Post, and many U.S. newspapers.