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Commentary: Roads are like an all-you-can-eat salad bar


By John Freivalds

Published 10/21/2017-Lakeshore Weekly News

Three things are unavoidable in life — death, taxes and traffic. But there is something we can do about traffic if we understand what its all about.

First of all, we are traffic. The same desire we have to drive whenever and wherever we want motivates everyone. So we are not innocent in this.

Traffic is about human nature, not just cars. Every driver needs to read Tom Vanderbilt’s book “Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do and What It Says About Us.” And then go to a public hearing on road closures and quote from this book.

Secondly, metro road construction is motivated only partially to improve traffic and our daily lives. Our main motivation is to create road construction jobs. That is why that senseless $700 million bridge over the St. Croix was built — not to speed traffic to Amery, Wisconsin.

Unions are for it, road construction companies lobby for it, and it gives the bureaucrats a reason to justify their existence like all bureaucracies. And politicians, who never vote against jobs, can say they did something for the community and be there for the ribbon-cutting ceremony. No ribbon ceremonies are done just to fill potholes.

The state road construction budget, like the U.S. Department of Defense budget, and how they are implemented are sacred cows, MnDOT says construction will occur and we citizens have to figure out how to get around it, i.e. “take alternate routes.”

And road construction is based on the open road fallacy of old — freeways will get you there safer and faster. If you oppose it, you are un-American, against motherhood, antiworker and obviously a tree-hugging environmentalist. The justification is usually that the road being reconstructed doesn’t meet current standards. However, the standards are set (and reset) by MnDOT.

Granted, I have a different perspective than most people — having spent much of my life working in developing countries and marveling how people get around with the roads they have. What we perceive as dangerous roads are often safer because you pay more attention. What’s more dangerous than a distracted iPhone user on Interstate 394 or a road full of potholes — think of them as speed bumps — where you have to slow down?

I always take backroads around town. I figure I have less chance of getting killed by a distracted driver at 35 mph versus going 65 mph on a freeway. And some communities have unsynchronized traffic lights in order to slow traffic down.

But here’s the real rub: The more you build, the more traffic you cause. Nothing new here for Robert Louis Stevenson, the famous Scottish travel writer (1850-1894), who wrote “when a road is once built, it is a strange thing how it collects traffic.”

To wit, I came to the Twin Cities 40 years ago. Traffic on U.S. Highway 12 — now I-394 — was backed up to then Hennepin County Road 18 (now U.S. Highway 169) and all the way to the Lowry Tunnel. So after spending several billions to make I-394, add commuter lanes and wipe out neighborhoods for right of way, eastbound traffic is still backed up on I-394 all the way to U.S. 169 at 7:30 a.m.

Worse, it has also been shown by economists that the time and money in getting around detours and congestion caused by constrution is never made up. Imagine the cost with the looming shutdown of I-35.

So is there a solution in all this? You can’t get us out of the cars; this is privacy, his and her space. Vanderbilt writes, “In traffic the basic model has been a state-subsidized all-you-can-eat salad bar. Take as many trips on the roads as you like, whenever you want, for whatever reason.”

Vanderbilt also points out that the thinking has gone (at least in some quarters) how can we get more people on the roads to “how can we get fewer.”

Congestion pricing, charging more at peak times to use freeways, has worked in cities like London and Stockholm. It forces people to make a decision about is this trip worth it. And what do I think about the proposed Southwest Light Rail line?

The humor publication Onion put it this way: “95 percent of U.S. commuters favor public transportation for others.”

John Freivalds is an author, commodities broker and opinion columnist. He lives with Linda his wife, a flock of turkeys, a herd of deer, a family of foxes, many raccoons, two mallards, two pheasants and innumerable songbirds.