In his annual testimony to Congress in March, Dept. of Transportation Inspector General Calvin L. Scovel III outlined the top ten management issues facing DOT, and for the first time he put traffic congestion on the list. “Given the impact of congestion, in the air and on the ground, on the quality of life for travelers and on economic growth, we believe that the Department's initiative to reduce congestion among all modes of transportation is noteworthy. It represents an overall framework for federal, state and local authorities to begin addressing congestion and includes elements ranging from alternative funding sources for infrastructure to cross-modal solutions.”

The IG's elevation of congestion to its top-ten list brings home the point that getting stuck in traffic represents not only an inconvenience, but a threat to the nation's economic well being and safety.

Scovel was referring in part to a plan introduced last May by then- Transportation Sec. Norman Mineta to reduce congestion, which called for, among other ideas, variable road-pricing schemes based on congestion. These so-called “High Occupancy Toll” or HOT lanes seek to price tolls based on real-time congestion reports and change throughout the day.

Another suggestion is to open public roads to privatization in the hope that the private sector can manage traffic flow in ways in which public entities cannot because of declining funding. A third suggestion calls for construction of traffic corridors that would relieve congestion on the borders of Canada and Mexico.

Selling roads to private firms is very enticing to cash-strapped states, as evidenced by a spate of activity over the past year in about a dozen of them, including leasing the Indiana Toll Road to an overseas private consortium at a cost of $3.8 billion for 75 years.

Are selling public roads, installing HOT lanes or building new roads the answer to congestion? Some experts suggest these solutions are too simplistic and call on policy makers to change the way they think about congestion.

As pessimistic as it may seem, a growing number of people who study congestion proffer that congestion is a natural outgrowth of economic success and we have to accept it. “Contrary to what the government tells us, congestion is not caused by poor policy choices, but by economic success,” says Anthony Downs, senior fellow, Metropolitan Policy Program at The Brookings Institution. Downs suggests the most congested regions are the most prosperous. “Expanding road capacity does not reduce congestion, because we're continuing to grow population, increasing the number of vehicles and driving more miles,” he says.

Downs notes that while HOT lanes may encourage people to alter their work schedules, we lose productivity because people are not working at the same time.

Brian Taylor, director of UCLA's Institute of Transportation Studies, concurs: “Congestion is a drag on productivity, but it may mean that a place is economically viable.” He says that traffic engineers and policy makers have it wrong when they focus solely on congestion. Instead, they should study ways to achieve “consistency” in traffic flow so drivers can count on how long a trip will take. “That's what businesses, especially trucking firms, really want. They want a trip to take the same time every day — even if it's longer.”

Taylor says that small changes, as opposed to large sweeping changes, are sometimes most effective. For example, instead of allowing vehicles to enter a freeway at will, spreading out entry through a green-light, red-light system makes a roadway “stable.” Another innovative idea is to push disabled cars off a road quickly. As for HOT lanes, Taylor says they sometimes speed up a trip, but they are not consistent in the travel times they deliver.