There is a subtext to Texas A&M Transportation Institute’s latest ranking of the most congested highways in Texas: roads don’t solve traffic problems. With a few exceptions, the study’s rankings change little from year to year—the same Texas roads are always the most crowded. A complicated set of metrics helps to put a number on the total numbers of wasted hours (529 million) and wasted fuel (204 million gallons) to help come up with a cost related to congestion (roughly $11 billion).
Those are big numbers, and they make road congestion sound like a big problem. But what do these numbers actually mean?
It’s hard to tell. Texas A&M creates this study every year for the Texas Department of Transportation, and it appears to do little more than offer the state transportation agency some quantitative fodder to help justify its spending of billions of public dollars on road expansions, tolled lanes, and other congestion relief strategies that, the data is here to remind us, never reduce congestion.
“Congestion relief is a priority for our top chokepoints as we balance the many demands on our roadways across the state,” says Marc Williams, TxDOT’s deputy executive director in a press release accompanying the release of the report.
The problem, however, is that as long as “congestion relief” is a top priority for the agency, nothing will change. That’s because congestion isn’t a transportation problem, it is a symptom of an urban mobility problem. What the A&M study does illustrate is that as cities and towns in Texas of all sizes grow, their roads become more crowded. But this isn’t because the highways are insufficient, poorly designed, or in need of improvement. The highways, in fact, do exactly what they are designed to do: condense traffic into single corridors that continue to fill with cars and trucks until they reach capacity. Despite decades of construction and billions of dollars of investment, the highways that were once promised as a solution to congestion are merely the arteries that manifest auto-crowding in Texas metros. Expanding highway capacity doesn’t relieve congestion; it simply provides more space to cram more cars and trucks onto highways.
Rather than suggesting a need to improve Texas roadways to accommodate for new growth, severe congestion on Texas roadways is an indication that the state’s entire approach toward stimulating and accommodating new growth is inefficient and wasteful. If TxDOT was serious about making its transportation system more efficient, then it would be addressing the issues that are really driving packed freeways: land use and development patterns, inadequate public transit, and the legacy of a single-minded approach towards funding mobility infrastructure investment.
Until Texas shifts its approach to growth—encouraging more density, less distance between workforce housing and employment centers, reducing sprawl, removing the highways that stifle urban development, and making streets safer for pedestrians and bicyclists—then it will never improve the state’s overall urban mobility issues.
But that’s not what this report reveals. When you drill down into most of the roads at the top of the Texas A&M list, the pending projects slated to improve the supposed congestion problem are mostly road design and improvement projects. There are a few exceptions. The report shows that a bus rapid transit corridor along Houston’s W. Loop Freeway is one way the state hopes to relieve traffic on Texas’ most congested roadway. But that is an outlier. Drill into most of the highly congested roads in Texas and you’ll find detailed information about how TxDOT plans to build more roads or lanes that will soon be as congested as the ones that are there today.
Oh, and as for the most congested roads in DFW? You probably don’t need a report like this one to tell you which ones they are. Here are the four that made a top 20 dominated by Houston:
- Ranked 5: Woodall Rodgers Freeway from Central Expressway to N. Beckley Ave
- Ranked 7: US75 from LBJ to Woodall Rodgers
- Ranked 8: Stemmons Freeway from SH 183 to I-30
- Ranked 15: LBJ from I-35 to Central Expressway