Response submitted to USA Today, September 19, 2007

To the Editor, USA Today—

Today’s online USA Today highlights another report, this one by Texas Transportation Institute, on how long the average American spent in congestion in 2005—close to 40 hours. And your August 8 editorial (“Ding! You’re now not free to move about the country”) noted that problems with air travel “have grown so severe that neither the industry nor the government can afford to wait.”

Passenger trains can help address both road and air congestion, and should get serious consideration. The FAA report you cited concludes that “high-density corridors may require consideration of high-speed ground modes as well as short-haul air travel.”

Passenger rail can help improve our economy, our environment, and our quality of life.

Ross B. Capon
Executive Director
National Association of Railroad Passengers
Washington, D.C.

Several plans urged to ease USA’s traffic congestion
By Larry Copeland, USA TODAY
Copyright 2007 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

ATLANTA — When gas prices skyrocketed after Hurricane Katrina, Beverly Morgan sought a cheaper way to get to work. She found an alternative commute program that put her in a carpool and even paid her a bonus — an incentive of up to $180 over three months to quit driving to work alone.

Morgan, a computer software analyst, began carpooling with three other people on her 50-mile round-trip commute. “There was a little anxiety level at first, but I was soon loving it,” she says.

More important to transportation planners here, Morgan is still carpooling long after the $180 incentive is gone. She also telecommutes one day a week.

Experiences like hers, duplicated millions of times over, are a critical component in clearing congestion on America’s highways. The USA is stuck in an economically draining traffic jam that’s worsening by the year, and getting the nation moving will require stepped-up efforts from government, businesses and commuters alike, a major research report concluded Tuesday.

No one-size-fits-all solution exists for congestion that costs the country $78 billion a year in delays and wasted fuel, says the report from the Texas Transportation Institute, a research arm of Texas A&M University. Instead, researchers recommend many steps:

•Businesses can help reduce travel during peak hours by letting employees work earlier or later shifts and offering them other flexible work options.

•Commuters should use the telephone or Internet instead of making some trips, travel in off-peak hours and use public transportation or carpools.

•Transportation agencies must improve the efficiency of existing road and transit systems and add capacity where needed.

The average traveler in urban areas spent nearly a full work week — 38 hours — of time stuck in traffic in 2005, the most recent data available. That was up from 37 hours in 2004 and 14 hours in 1982. Los Angeles-area drivers gave up the most time — 72 hours a year — followed by those in San Francisco, Washington and Atlanta, all at 60 hours.

Transportation Secretary Mary Peters says Tuesday’s report “is ample evidence that our current transportation model is broken. We need fresh approaches like new technology, congestion pricing and greater private sector investment to get America moving again.”

The Texas report calls for a broad national strategy to rein in congestion.

“You can’t put the solution all on the planners or the engineers or the agencies,” says Tim Lomax, a TTI research engineer and co-author of the study. “It’s going to require the active participation of the business community and the active participation of commuters.”

A 2005 national study by the Families and Work Institute found that 31% of employers allowed at least some workers to change their daily starting and ending times. The study found that such worker flexibility was growing. The institute, a non-profit, non-partisan research organization, surveyed 1,092 employers that had 50 or more employees.

But David Hartgen, emeritus professor of transportation studies at University of North Carolina at Charlotte who recently completed a 50-state study of congestion, says most flexible work options “have pretty much peaked out.” The exception, he says, is telecommuting. “Here in Charlotte, we have twice as many people working at home as on transit,” he says.

Alan Pisarski, a national expert on commuting, says the aging of baby boomers will increase the availability of such options. “The lack of skilled workers is going to force employers to have more flexibility,” he says.

Robert Dunphy, senior resident fellow for transportation and infrastructure at the Urban Land Institute, says businesses “are comfortable with they way they do things. They like seeing people sitting at their desks and working, or appearing to work. I’m guessing there’s probably not going to be a significant change there.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represents more than 3 million businesses and organizations, last month launched a major transportation campaign, but it focuses on finding new funding methods to resolve “the infrastructure crisis,” says Janet Kavinoky, the organization’s director of transportation infrastructure. “Lack of capacity is what causes congestion,” she says.

In 2005, congestion cost the average urban driver $710, up from $680 in 2004, the Texas Transportation Institute report says. It would have been higher if not for public transportation.

William Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association, a pro-transit group, says more investment is needed to attract more riders. “Only 53% of Americans say that they have access to any public transportation,” he says.

Getting drivers into carpools is challenging, too. But in areas where commuting pain is greatest, incentives to get people to use alternative forms of transportation can succeed with both businesses and commuters, says Kevin Green, executive director of the Georgia group Clean Air Campaign. It runs the Cash for Commuters program that enticed Morgan out of her solo commute. “What employers find of value is that their employees like it, so it helps with recruiting and retaining employees,” Green says.

For Morgan, 56, continuing to carpool and telecommute was a no-brainer. “I save on gas, I save wear and tear on my car, and I get a much better rate on insurance because I drive less,” she says. “I like it more every day.”

Copyright 2007 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.