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Commentary: Are we inducing demand for road projects?

Commentary: Are we inducing demand for road projects?

Posted: Friday, April 1, 2016 12:00 pm

By John Diers

“Induced demand” is economist speak for a phenomenon that occurs when increasing the supply of something makes people want to use it even more — like ice cream.

First identified and applied to road building in the ‘60s, the Minnesota Department of Transportation took note of induced demand in the early ‘80s and, under Commissioner Dick Braun, began scaling back its early ambitious, and expensive, freeway plans and expanded its support for public transit.

The Federal Highway Administration has a paper on induced demand and there are several studies, notably one published by the National Bureau of Economic Research that asserts, “Adding road capacity will not alleviate congestion on any sort of major urban road or rural highway within metropolitan boundaries.” More specifically, “Individuals drive more when the stock of roads increases.” In other words, you can’t build your way out of congestion.

So comes the question: Why do it?

Go to Google and look up “induced demand,” and you’ll find 2.8 million entries and as many explanations as to why building more roads and adding highway capacity is a zero sum game. Want to learn more? Check out “highway boondoggles” for 148,000 examples of how dubious road projects squander scarce infrastructure dollars that should be used to maintain the roads and bridges we already have.

Long-range highway plans and planning have been with us since the 1920s, and all of them are about money. Want new, or expanded, roads in your community? Hire a consultant and come up with a plan. Make sure it’s a good one, because your plan will have to compete with other plans for federal and state funding.

Lots of money gets spent on planning, and because of that, plans can easily become at once a self-fulfilling prophecy and a straitjacket. No one stops and asks, “Is this project really needed? Why are we doing this? Should we be building this in the first place?” Public hearings are held, more as a matter of form than anything else, but the plan drives everything, so rather than step back and validate the assumptions and perhaps forfeit the funding, the money gets spent and the project built.

The current County Road 42/Highway 13 contretemps is symptomatic of this — not to mention the fact that the county handled it so ham-handedly. Cold calling a homeowner and asking if they’d rather sell their house or have it condemned is not the best approach to winning support for a project.

The County Road 21 debacle five years ago should have been a teaching experience. Then, the county and city had plans to close Main Avenue and reroute 21 through the Pleasant Street neighborhood, isolating downtown businesses and taking a dozen homes with it. Public opposition killed the plan. A traffic signal at Main synchronized with signals at 21 and 13 would have worked. There would have still been congestion, but it didn’t fit the engineering dogma that puts cars and moving traffic ahead of businesses and people.

Planners and engineers aren’t malevolent, but the processes they use, their priorities and assumptions, the questions they ask and the models they follow too often ignore the social and economic changes shaping our future, not to mention the wishes of the community. Attitudes and priorities have changed since the 1950s.

We have serious infrastructure problems and a shortage of cash to fix them. That and competing needs are sure to drive up taxes. A school referendum worth upwards of $150 million is set for May 29. Just recently the county imposed a sales tax. Sewer and water rates are going up and just as certain, the city and the county will want levy increases in the next budget cycle. Who pays?

Meanwhile, the post-war Baby Boom generation that filled the schools and universities in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s is leaving the workforce and going gray and will put more and more demands on the health care system. In 10 years, there will be more Minnesotans over 65 than are in the elementary grades today. Many don’t have adequate pensions or haven’t saved enough for retirement. Some, like the Teamsters, have seen their pension plans go belly up — and there will be more. What’s looming is an economic crisis that’s graver and more pervasive than the Great Recession, one that will be with us for upwards of 30 years.

Where is there room for building more roads in all of that?

John Diers is a Prior Lake resident who spent 40 years working in the transit industry and author of “Twin Cities by Trolley: The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul” and “St. Paul Union Depot.” To submit questions or topics for community columnists, email editor@plamerican.com. (Editor’s note: Diers is a community columnist and not employed by, or paid by, the newspaper.)

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