Two weeks before the Nov. 3, 2015, election, Gov. Greg Abbott penned an op-ed that ran in the Dallas Morning News on Oct. 16, 2015, and again in the Austin American- Statesman three days later, urging voters to support a state constitutional proposition to funnel more dollars to funding Texas roads. He made the case by citing what daily traffic congestion costs Texas motorists in dollars, over the course of a year.
"Road congestion costs rush-hour drivers in Austin and Dallas more than $1,000 a year," Abbott said. "And in Houston, it’s even more -- almost $1,500 a year."
Traffic in the state’s major cities can be awful. Does it really cost Texans up to an extra $1,500 a year?
Replying to our inquiry, Abbott spokesman John Wittman said the governor drew on research in the 2015 Urban Mobility Scorecard issued August 2015 by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. The institute has been compiling this data since 1984. In fact, the institute was subject to a 2012 PolitiFact Georgia fact-check questioning the costs Atlanta residents bear to get around town. That claim was ruled Mostly True.
For our part, we reached out to Tim Lomax, a senior research engineer at the Texas Transportation Institute, to get a better handle on the math. The group calculates the cost of traffic congestion using four sets of numbers:
- the travel delay (amount of extra time a trip takes compared to "free-flowing conditions") during commuting times (6-10 a.m. and 3-7 p.m. Monday-Friday) divided by the commuter population, using figures from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.
- the travel delay during off-peak non-commuting times (all other times) divided by the total number of people in the urban area.
- excess fuel consumption from being stuck in traffic calculated using the state average cost per gallon for gasoline during peak commuting times.
- excess fuel consumption during off-peak non-commuting times.
And, according to the institute, the peak congestion cost for Texans in 2014 came out to $17.67 per hour for personal travel. In Houston, the number-crunchers found a 61-hour average yearly delay per commuter and an excess fuel consumption of 29 gallons at $3.12 (average price for a gallon of gasoline in Texas in 2014) for a total congestion cost of $1,490 per commuter, according to the scorecard.
When we took a look, however, the math worked out differently. We multiplied the yearly delay (61 hours) by $17.67, and added that to the excess fuel consumption rate (29 gallons at $3.12 per gallon) and got a lower annual average cost of $1168. Our calculations for Austin and Dallas also came up short ($987.48 instead of TTI’s $1159; Dallas came out to $1005.15 compared to the scorecard’s $1185; we found San Antonio to have a cost of $839.88, instead of $1,002).
We went back to Lomax to explain the math discrepancy. He said the total congestion cost Abbott and others cite ($1,490 per year per commuter for Houston) includes both peak travel and off-peak travel times; the tables in the scorecard only show figures for peak travel times.
Lomax said the scorecard focused on "numbers that seem relevant," and that most people are concerned with what their daily commute costs them. However, he also said that total congestion cost is important to use because it calculates for all times of the day.
Critics question calculations
Joe Cortright, an urban economist at City Observatory, has been critical of the Urban Mobility Scorecard for years, and often is cited by other urban transportation organizations, as well as in the 2012 PolitiFact Georgia fact-check. We spoke with him over the phone to better understand his qualms. For him, the congestion cost figure is overblown and used mainly to justify the need for more roads by transportation departments. City Observatory is a Knight Foundation-funded think tank focused on debunking "misconceptions" in urban research and city planning.
The Transportation Institute’s travel delay compares the extra time it takes to get to your destination due to congestion, compared to how long it would take in free-flow conditions. Cortright argues it’s unreasonable to expect there to be zero congestion on roads during peak times, and impossible to increase the supply of roads to the extent that there would be no travel delays. Also, he says if roads are increased to handle that demand, more people could end up on the roads creating congestion after all.
If you can’t drive faster than the speed limit, that represents a cost to you, he said.
"I’m not sure anybody, as a matter of public policy, would argue that makes sense."
Another component of the total congestion cost is excess fuel consumption. Lomax said the institute uses the state average fuel price for each year. While fuel costs have declined steadily since August 2014, that won’t be reflected until next year’s scorecard. Lomax added that fuel prices account for less than 10 percent of the total congestion cost, and most of that congestion cost is travel time.
The Transportation Institute partnered with Inrix, a Seattle-based traffic data provider for this year’s scorecard. Inrix had its own travel time index, which didn’t account for traffic volumes on different roads. The Inrix method would give "every piece of road the same weight," Lomax said in an email, so a portion of the West Loop in Houston would be considered equal to a more sparsely traveled road. The Institute’s method gives more weight to heavily traveled areas such as the 610 Loop because "it carries a lot more people."
"Our swings, whether up or down, were not nearly as big as their changes," Lomax said.
Cortright with City Observatory also criticizes the Transportation Institute’s lack of peer review in its research. Asked about how the group gathers its data and why a peer review doesn’t occur, Lomax said TTI has a timely topic with a limited shelf life, and does not "wait around six months" for other people to look at the data.
Todd Litman with the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, a Canadian independent research organization based in Victoria, British Columbia, criticizes the Urban Mobility Report for "overestimating congestion costs and roadway expansion benefits" and for not incorporating research methods, such as a dedicated literature review. PolitiFact Georgia’s claim from TTI on congestion costs for Atlanta residents cited a University of Connecticut civil and environmental engineering professor Norman Garrick, who said the report doesn’t take other factors such as health care and the environment into account.
Research sponsors of the Texas Transportation Institute include the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, Texas Department of Transportation and the U.S. Department of Transportation, often the same organizations that cite the institute’s research as proof of a need for more funding for new roadways. Asked how this could affect the work done, Lomax said it’s not a factor. While TTI has several sponsors, he said the mobility scorecard only has two sponsors: the institute and Inrix. At any given time, anywhere from 250 to 300 projects could be going on at once at TTI, he said.
Greg Abbott said "Road congestion costs rush hour drivers in Austin and Dallas more than $1,000 a year. And in Houston, it’s even more -- almost $1,500 a year."
Abbott’s claim was based on an annual Urban Mobility Report produced by the Texas Transportation Institute. While his figures match those in the report, critics have raised significant questions about how the numbers are calculated, as well as the premise that normal traffic conditions result in a congestion cost to motorists. They also point to the institute’s sponsors, most of which are transportation agencies that can be expected to use the report to advocate for additional funding for road projects.
We rate this claim Mostly True.
MOSTLY TRUE – The statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information.
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