I hate to break it to my Virginia friends, but building more roads and more lanes won't really relieve congestion -- it will just enrich developers and more drivers on more lanes for about the same traffic density.
Here's a tale from the current legislative session that illustrates this:
Virginia state delegate David Albo (R) wants to hike taxes on businesses that do business in Virginia but don't have any offices or employees in Virginia. This is standard Albo fare, as Norman Leahy explains on our Examiner Opinion Zone blog:
This isn’t the first time Albo has sought to have someone else pay for Virginia’s roads. Back in 2007, Albo famously included the now-abolished abusive driving fees as part of a larger transportation bill that was, itself, later gutted by the state’s Supreme Court.
What's behind Albo's "burning desire to stuff more money into a deeply dysfunctional VDOT," as Leahy puts it?
I don't know his mind, but I do know who's behind Albo -- and the answer shows us another example of how it's worthwhile to ask who's lobbying for and benefitting from legislation. Over the past five years, Albo has raised more money from the "real estate/construction" industry than from any other industry according to data at the Virginia Public Access Project.
During the debate over the "driving fees," I wrote this:
Developers provided most of the money behind the 2002 ballot initiative in Northern Virginia to raise sales taxes in order to pay for more roads. The Virginia Public Access Project reports that $1.1 million of the $2 million raised by "Citizens for Better Transportation" came from the "Real Estate/Construction" industry.... In his successful 2005 run for governor, Democrat Tim Kaine — an enthusiastic supporter of the "abuser fees" — received more money from developers ($3.3 million) than from any other industry. Some developers, such as highway builder Wiley Roark, who gave to Republican Jerry Kilgore in 2005 ($10,000 in Roark’s case), atoned after the election by giving generously to Kaine’s inaugural committee (Roark gave $8,100). Del. Albo and his co-sponsor, Del. Thomas Rust, both dip deeply into developer pockets. This election cycle, Albo received more from developers than from any other industry, including gifts from well-connected developers "Til" Hazel, William Hazel, and Barbara Fried. Rust, a longtime champion of tax hikes for highway money, has hauled in more than $40,000 from the Hazel family in this election cycle alone, and upwards of $400,000 from developers over his career.
So, why do developers pour so much money into tax-and-pave politicians? Because, these new lanes are subsidies to the developments in the D.C. exurbs.
One way to think about it is to see traffic as a cost. Paving more roads lowers the "cost" of moving out to Loudoun, as long as the Loudoun-dwellers and road-users aren't paying for that pavement.
But what happens when you lower the cost of living in Loudoun while working on Connecticut Avenue? You provide more incentive for people to do it -- exactly what the developers want. But incentivizing folks to make that commute puts more people on the road than are currently there -- thus reducing (possibly to zero) any congestion alleviation from the new roads or lanes.