WACO, Texas – One of the most frustrating aspects of many Texans’ days is commuting to and from work. Rush hour has expanded far past 60 minutes, and travel times are becoming increasingly unpredictable.

The problem of overcrowding goes beyond safety and inconvenience, it’s also extracting a toll on the economy. Moreover, with continued growth in the population and business activity, congestion is getting worse every day.

The Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI) estimates that traffic congestion on Texas roadways costs more than $10 billion per year (and rising) in total delay and fuel expenses. Texans spent an extra 472 million (yes, 472,000,000) hours in travel time. Imagine all of the things that could have been accomplished or enjoyed in those wasted hours. Commutes are a reality for most members of the workforce, but losing 472 million additional hours just because of crowded roadways is clearly a bad situation.

M. Ray Perryman
M. Ray Perryman

Another problem is that travel times are more unpredictable than they used to be. The TTI calculates a Planning Time Index, which measures how much extra time should be allowed to be sure of a punctual arrival. In Austin, the index is well over four, meaning that if it would take 20 minutes without traffic, more than 80 minutes should be allowed for driving just in case traffic is bad. The Metroplex is also a four, and Houston isn’t far behind. El Paso and McAllen exceed three, and San Antonio is nearly there. Again, this phenomenon is a source of wasted hours and lost economic efficiency, with people cooling their heels in parking lots, airport lobbies, doctors’ offices, and elsewhere when they happen to get lucky with traffic. Traffic delays also increase inventory costs for Texas companies, as they cannot manage logistics in an optimal manner.

Several years ago, the Texas Legislature called for cooperative efforts between the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and others including the TTI to figure out how best to attack the problem given scare resources. (Highway funding has long failed to keep pace with economic and population growth, and it is becoming increasingly imperative that we solve the problem, but that’s a topic for another day.)

A list of the 100 most congested Texas roadways (maintained by TxDOT) puts IH 35 through the heart of Austin at the top. That stretch of highway alone leads to 788,649 hours of delay per mile and $172 million in congestion costs every year. The second-most expensive roadway in terms of congestion costs is IH 635 in Dallas (from IH 35E to US 75) at $126 million per year. Next are IH 610 in Houston (from UA 90 to IH 10W) at nearly $114 million and US 75 in Dallas (IH 635 to the Woodall Rodgers Freeway) at about $113 million per annum. These are very real costs, and they’re only a portion of the economic price of congestion.

Compounding the problem is that there is also work to be done apart from expansion to deal with excess traffic. Pavement deterioration is a big issue. Major upgrades are needed on bridges, interchanges, and more. A recent study from The Road Information Project (TRIP—a nonprofit research organization sponsored by insurance companies, equipment manufacturers, distributors, and other businesses and organizations) noted that without additional money for highways “Texas’ roads and bridges will become increasingly deteriorated and congested and needed safety improvements will remain unfunded.” Current TxDOT resources aren’t enough to keep up with necessary maintenance, much less expand capacity. Voters will have the opportunity to approve some additional funds in November, but not enough to solve the problems.

Yet another challenge is the major wear and tear and crowding on both highways and smaller roadways stemming from oil and gas activity. Many of these roads are in relatively rural areas with highways not designed for the traffic they are now carrying. Drivers in these regions often go far out of their way to avoid the most dangerous places. I also know of businesses and school districts with policies against traveling the more direct roadways they formerly used in favor of longer, but less overcrowded, routes.

Texas is in an enviable position compared to most parts of the nation, with a growing economy and relatively plentiful jobs. However, the state’s roadways are in desperate need of funding. TxDOT can only do so much with current budgets, and it’s not enough no matter how far and efficiently funds are stretched. Studies have indicated that strategic investments in roadways lead to an ANNUAL return of more than 30 percent just in terms of economic efficiency.  Certainly, it is important to protect the Texas advantage as a lower-cost, business-friendly state. At the same time, it must be recognized that highway congestion and dangerous roads and bridges are also a deterrent to corporate expansion and relocation (not to mention quality of life).

<I>Dr. M. Ray Perryman is President and Chief Executive Officer of The Perryman Group (www.perrymangroup.com). He also serves as Institute Distinguished Professor of Economic Theory and Method at the International Institute for Advanced Studies.</I>