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Long-Range Transportation Planning Doomed to Failure, Says Study

May 28, 2008 By

Federal law requires metropolitan planning organizations to produce long-range transportation plans. According to a new study by the Cato Institute, these plans are not cost-effective, attempt to control residents' behavior through land-use regulation and other means, and use unquantifiable measures to justify extravagant projects.

In "Roadmap to Gridlock: The Failure of Long-Range Metropolitan Transportation Planning," Cato senior fellow Randal O'Toole reviews more than 75 regional plans to show how they lead to irrational policies. "Long-range transportation planning necessarily relies on uncertain forecasts," O'Toole writes. "Planners also set qualitative goals such as 'vibrant communities' and quantifiable but incomparable goals such as 'protecting historic resources.' Such vagaries result in a politicized process that cannot hope to find the most effective transportation solutions."

O'Toole criticizes existing plans for coming up short of ideal standards. "No plan did sensitivity analyses of critical assumptions. None bothered to project potential benefits or cost-effectiveness of projects considered. All but a handful of plans failed to include any realistic alternatives, and many failed to project the effects of the proposed plan on transportation."

This results in increased congestion. "The Texas Transportation Institute estimates that congestion costs the nation's commuters $78 billion in 2005 and that the amount of time people waste sitting in congestion has hextupled since 1982," O'Toole notes. "That has forced drivers to waste 2.9 billion gallons of fuel a year, adding 28 billion tons of CO2 to the atmosphere."

O'Toole concludes that long-range plans are doomed to failure and suggests instead that metropolitan areas focus on meeting short-term goals, use quantifiable standards, and impose user fees. Congress will have the opportunity to review planning requirements when the federal gasoline tax comes up for reauthorization in 2009. "Long-range regional problems are simply too complex for anyone to predict or fix," O'Toole concludes. "Congress should repeal long-range planning requirements in federal law and replace them with a short-range planning process built around incentives and user fees."

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