Woodrow Wilson Service Area, N.J. – New Jersey Turnpike, black sheets of rain. I’ve decided to spend a few days steering myself into the worst rush-hour commutes in the Northeast, and the first leg of the race — from the New York City Financial District to Metuchen, N.J. — ought to be spectacularly nasty: a gladiator run through Lower Manhattan traffic into the Hugh L. Carey (a.k.a. Brooklyn–Battery) Tunnel, bumping through a wide slice of Brooklyn, over the Verrazano Narrows Bridge into Staten Island, all the way across that borough, over another bridge into the industrial wasteland surrounding Perth Amboy, and across the New Jersey Turnpike into Metuchen. (Yeah, New York, I know — that’s not the easiest way to get there.) It’s only 37 miles according to Google Maps, but the combination of obstacles, river crossings, rush-hour departure time, and freezing rain promises to make it into a particularly unpleasant endurance test. In reality, it turns out to be a relatively easy run compared with what else I have in store. Driving through Manhattan is the usual taxi-dodging Thunderdome horror show, but the lines are moving briskly at the tunnel — all praises be upon E-ZPass — the bridges are clear, and traffic is fairly light. Once Staten Island is in the rear-view mirror, the automotive volume thins out quickly, and there’s not much on the road besides me, a guy hauling a truckload of Doritos, Afrika Bambaataa on the radio (having completed his duties as a visiting scholar at Cornell University), and the voice of the GPS lady telling me which way to go. In less than an hour, I’m suburban-home-free and steering myself toward steeper challenges on the freeways of northern Virginia, the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and the terrifying merge-or-die Schuylkill Expressway.
With the exception of the Escape from New York segment, each of these routes has been at one time or another a daily commute for me, but I travel around the country enough to appreciate that they are not even the worst these United States have to offer. Just outside Metuchen, I spot what I suspect is a big part of the reason for that: The New Jersey Transit commuter train is as tightly packed as the Black Hole of Calcutta. Car commuting in the densely urban Northeast Corridor can be a frustrating waste of time, but for many of those living between Fairfield County and Fairfax County, it is a choice — a choice not really available to the vast majority of commuters in such traffic-addled metropolises as Houston or Atlanta, to say nothing of the poor people of Southern California, where whatever spatio-temporal anomaly governs life requires two hours to get from any given Point A to any given Point B. (On a recent drive from San Pedro to LAX, I averaged 6.25 mph over the course of the 20-mile trip.) Houston, Phoenix, and other big American cities that saw most of their growth in the highway-intensive postwar era are simply too spread out to support the kind of mass transit available in the Northeast. Sun Belt workers are more or less stuck in their cars.
Traffic is a visceral quality-of-life issue.The morning rush-hour commute is pure, unadulterated, Grade A hell for millions of Americans — millions of suburb-dwelling Americans with old-fashioned jobs of the sort that require one to be in a particular place at a particular time doing a particular thing, i.e., low-hanging Republican fruit — an everyday problem that is right here, right now, right on the other side of the windshield. It costs billions of dollars in squandered time and productivity, and in effect extends the 40-hour workweek into 50 or more hours for millions of voters. And it makes people furious.
Liberals love to talk about transportation: They will bend the national ear for hours on end with demands for massive new spending on highway infrastructure, enormous and enormously expensive expansions of public-transportation networks, endless variations on that “Monorail!” song-and-dance number from The Simpsons. But conservatives are pulled in opposing directions: Elected officials with an interest in the problem of traffic congestion, Virginia governor Bob McDonnell the most recent to join them, want to take what they see as pragmatic, good-government steps to better manage the problem, aligning resources and incentives through consumer choice where possible and injecting some accountability into the system.
But there is no way around the fact that transportation projects are enormously expensive. Part of that expense is due to the waste and inefficiency associated with any government-run construction project, but part of it is the nature of the beast: The materials and labor necessary to maintaining a highway or rail line are dear indeed, and building new highways and rail lines is mind-bogglingly expensive. Governor McDonnell and his team in Virginia did the numbers and came up with the answer no conservative wants to hear: a tax increase to support higher levels of government spending. The reaction on the right consisted largely in the composition of political obituaries for McDonnell, who is sometimes mentioned as a possible presidential candidate. Republicans love governors and mayors, because they have executive experience, but they hate the compromise and deal-doing that goes along with being the guy in a state or city entrusted with actually getting things done. Governor Rick Perry of Texas — Rick By-God Perry — was denounced as a sell-out RINO squishling because of his support for a controversial transportation project, and Governor McDonnell is inhaling a big whiff of that same stink right now. But the commute from the bedroom community of Burke, Va., to Capitol Hill suggests that something is seriously wrong in the Virginia suburbs, which just happen to be home to rich deposits of votes.
I want something to be at stake in the Virginia-to-D.C. leg of my commute, so I have scheduled a series of interviews and meetings beginning at 9 a.m. on Capitol Hill. I am more than a little obsessive in matters of punctuality, and I know this route from long, bitter experience, so I have given myself almost two hours to make the allegedly 27-minute trip. At the 27-minute mark, I have not managed even to get so far as the epic traffic jams of I-495, where an infinite sea of brake lights imbues the morning with the red glow of a dodgy establishment in Amsterdam. According to the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, the average D.C.-area commuter spends six full days every year sitting in traffic jams — on top of the normal expected commuting time. Roadwork and accidents can turn a half-hour drive into a 90-minute haul, and timing is everything: The rigid workday of the federal labor force and those who organize their day around it means that the busiest sections might look like Kansas at 6:54 a.m. and Cairo at 7:15 a.m. Throughout late 2012, commuters stranded on the overburdened asphalt of northern Virginia were treated to radio ads from the Obama campaign lambasting Paul Ryan for voting against federal transportation funding. Not that it is obvious that new federal spending would have done a great deal of good: The nearly $300 billion 2005 highway bill did not make a dent in the traffic of the D.C. area or that of any other major city, and neither did the billions lavished upon transportation projects as part of President Obama’s stimulus package. Some $100 billion has been spent on new rail lines alone in the past 40 years, bringing no meaningful improvement in congestion but many billions in operating costs.
I make my 9 a.m. appointment — frazzled and frustrated, but there on time — during which a very defensive Governor McDonnell makes his case for the expensive and far-reaching transportation bill he has just signed, tax increases and all. “We’ve been trying to solve an intractable problem for Virginia for years,” he says, “and there is no way to build this infrastructure for free. There are no free lunches. We’ve redirected existing resources into transportation and tried to get new ones. But ultimately, every governor and Congress is faced with the same empirical math problem. This was an effort led by conservatives in the legislature and a conservative speaker of the house. It’s a dilemma for conservatives right now, but we can’t just talk about philosophy and hypotheticals — we’ve got to fix the roads.” Governor McDonnell has spent many years driving on Virginia’s roads, and he knows a little something about mass transit in the region, too: As a young man working in construction, he helped build the McPherson Square Metro station in Washington. He is particularly worried about the effect of congestion on Virginia’s business environment, and several times he cites CNBC’s annual “America’s Top States for Business” rankings, which dropped Virginia from first place in 2011 to third place in 2012. The state’s work-force and quality-of-life rankings went up, but its transportation ranking tanked, from No. 10 to No. 32, while Texas held first place in that category and first place overall, even though its education and quality-of-life scores were middling to poor.
“My three major job-creating centers are having a huge problem,” Governor McDonnell protests. He had hoped to privatize the commonwealth’s state-monopoly liquor stores and invest the proceeds from their sale in transportation, but that initiative failed. He also tried to open up new oil-and-gas drilling in the state and direct its proceeds to transportation, but his efforts were blocked by the Obama administration. A series of audits and reforms helped squeeze some extra value out of the Virginia Department of Transportation, but in the end he was left with something that most conservatives find unpalatable: a substantial tax increase to support an ambitious public-works project.
“Those people sitting out there in the parking lot that is I-495 — those are voters,” says Virginia secretary of transportation Sean Connaughton, who served in the U.S. Department of Transportation in the George W. Bush administration. “They are” — he pauses for a moment, as though not quite sure whether he should finish the thought — “Republican voters, a lot of them, conservative Republicans, out in Loudoun County and places like that. They expect us to do something.” Mr. Connaughton is himself a frustrated Virginia commuter: He drives daily from his home in the Virginia exurbs of Washington to the state capital of Richmond, some 100 miles away — and that drive takes him less time than his previous commute into Washington. “It’s just crazy,” he says.
Before I sit in traffic on the freeway into Philadelphia, I get to sit in traffic on the Blue Route, and before that I get to sit in suburban traffic on Lancaster Avenue, the nation’s first paved intercity road, privately financed and built in 1795. The allegedly 32-minute drive from the suburb of Wayne, Pa., to Rittenhouse Square in the center of Philadelphia takes more than an hour, and a good part of that time is spent just trying to get to the Schuylkill Expressway — or “Surekill Distressway,” as it is locally known.
The Schuylkill is a very special circle of commuter hell, the busiest road in Pennsylvania, used by hundreds of thousands of commuters each day. On a fine bright Monday-morning drive into Philadelphia not long ago, a young man pulled up next to me in a new Volkswagen Jetta. He looked every inch the prosperous young coffee achiever: In a new car, on his way to work early on a Monday morning, wearing a suit — and as we sat stalled in traffic, he produced a small glass pipe and a lighter, and took a deep, long drag of crack. I think that the guy who designed the Schuylkill must have been doing something similar: The freeway is a sort of inside-out abomination, with most of the exits and on-ramps on the left side of the road rather than the right, which makes for some pretty interesting rush-hour maneuvering. The lanes are narrow and, because it closely hugs the contours of the Schuylkill River, it has proved impossible to expand or improve. The design is so poor that a 2009 rainstorm resulted in a four-hour traffic jam of such absolute stillness that drivers were seen getting out of their cars and playing cards. That’s a high price to pay for living in the suburbs.
Those traffic-stranded suburbanites point to the reason why the transit problem is probably unsolvable. They don’t have the same access to mass transit, but people want to live in the suburbs of Sun Belt cities for the same reason they want to live in the suburbs of northeastern cities: a measure of privacy, superior schools, and room to raise a family. The ten-minute commute between Midtown Manhattan and the Financial District via a $112-a-month unlimited subway pass is very attractive if you are the sort of person who enjoys living in a 500-square-foot New York City apartment, i.e., young and well-off or old and well-off. For people in the middle — and, especially, for non-millionaire married couples with children — the suburbs continue to be very attractive.
Which is to say, the problem is not only how we get around but how we live. You cannot fix the transportation problem without fixing the city schools, without reforming the tax codes and regulations that send families and businesses fleeing to the suburbs, without addressing crime (New York City’s urban renaissance was made possible almost exclusively by the fact that the Giuliani administration got crime under control), and without a hundred other things that have nothing to do with asphalt or railways. That is not going to happen. But building new roads is as likely to cause traffic congestion as to relieve it: It is a de facto subsidy for suburban and exurban sprawl, especially if the underlying incentives for de-urbanization remain unchanged. As one analyst put it: “If you build it, you will sit in traffic on it.” And even relatively densely populated and mass-transit-friendly places such as Northern Virginia find it hard to make public transportation a real economic win: On net, Northern Virginia commuters receive a subsidy from the less-developed areas of the state. Mass-transit users complain about fares, but New York City subway riders receive a $1.11 subsidy from taxpayers for every trip they take, while riders on the Metro-North line receive a $4.26 subsidy per ride, and those on the filthy and unreliable Long Island Railroad receive a $7.34 subsidy for a ride not worth $0.02 to any sensible human being.
The final leg of my journey is the opposite of the first: from the New Jersey suburbs into the Financial District. At the Woodrow Wilson Service Area — you’re nobody in New Jersey until you have a turnpike toilet named after you — a scruffy young couple who seem to belong in a Bruce Springsteen song ask me if there happens to be a full-service liquor store hidden somewhere between the Starbucks and the Roy Rogers. Ten o’clock in the morning, this is. They go away disappointed. I hope they take the train.
There is no place quite like New Jersey to appreciate the triumphal, brutal vastness of the existing American transportation infrastructure. The Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways is surely the largest exercise in economic central planning in modern American history, forming a socioeconomic Berlin Wall in many large cities, blighting many more, and connecting a whole lot of nowhere with even more nowhere in the vast empty plains between. The costs of maintaining it are astounding, thousands of dollars per mile each year, all 47,182 miles. It cannot be unbuilt, so those costs are never going away. Add to that the endless state and local thoroughfares, the turnpikes and toll roads, the trains, buses, subways, and streetcars, and the scope of the thing looks unmanageable, which it certainly is.
You can make some useful reforms: Governor McDonnell’s bill converts Virginia’s cents-per-gallon gasoline levy into a percentage-based sales tax, thereby indexing it. Virginia also identified discrete transportation entities, such as particular bus routes, that are economically self-sufficient or nearly so, and structured incentives to encourage others to become similarly efficient. There is room at the margins for some privatization, for consumer-choice initiatives, public-private partnerships, and the like, and new technology means that we could, if we so desired, effectively make every road a toll road. (The tracking that would be necessary raises serious privacy concerns.) Express-bus services are far less expensive than building railways, and they have the added benefit of being flexible. They also attract entrepreneurial energy: The old Chinatown city-to-city buses did such brisk business that they attracted high-end competitors, and it is now possible to travel between cities in comfortable motorcoaches with Wi-Fi and other amenities. Breaking up municipal mass-transit monopolies, taking a liberal approach to licensure, and the expansion of bus lanes and high-occupancy-vehicle lanes are sensible ways for conservatives to encourage market-based solutions for commuters. What is needed is not sweeping national or state legislation, or multi-billion-dollar “investments” directed by Washington, but an iterative, piecemeal approach at the local and regional level, a process of steady and constant reform and innovation — competent governing, in short. Governor McDonnell’s model — pass a big bill hoping to solve the problem in one dramatic movement — will not get it done. Transportation, particularly mass transit, feels like a liberal issue to many conservatives, but there is more to it than Amtrak contracts for the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees. Republicans, particularly at the state and local level, should be more energetic in their approach to the issue.
But in the end conservatives are left arguing that we can do a better job managing a transportation network that is Soviet in both its scope and its main model of economic organization. Waiting is of course the characteristic economic activity in all socialist systems, and American commuters are getting a concentrated dose of it, their own version of those poor Russians’ queuing up for sobachya radost sausages — millions of voters and taxpayers waiting out there in the fumes, counting the inches to the off-ramp, unwitting victims of an irrational system that they never had a say in planning but cannot imagine doing without.