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Memorial Day traffic study finds dire economic cost, public support for user fees

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The U.S. Travel Association on Wednesday released a survey finding that Americans avoided an estimated 47.5 million auto trips due to highway congestion in 2018—costing the economy $30 billion in travel spending and 248,000 American jobs, according to the organization’s economists.

Even with record numbers of drivers expected on the road for the holiday weekend, the U.S. Travel survey also found that many potential road travelers simply won’t bother—nearly a third avoided at least one day trip and almost a quarter avoided at least one overnight trip last year because of the likelihood of road congestion. Economic modeling based on the survey results calculated the jobs and spending cost numbers.

The survey also found that comfortable majorities of American auto travelers would prefer to pay more in user fees to fund system improvements rather than sit in traffic.

For those that do hit the roads, their destinations will “feel” farther away than ever because of congestion delays, according to maps built by U.S. Travel using data from INRIX “Roadway Analytics.”

“Heading into Memorial Day and the summer travel season, this suite of research shows that: one, the country is becoming less connected because of strained infrastructure; and two, there is a measurable economic cost to that problem,” said U.S. Travel Association President and CEO Roger Dow.

“The infrastructure discussion tends to grind to a political halt when it turns to resources,” Dow continued, “so we tested the funding question with polling. The interesting thing we found is that Americans are willing to pay more as long as their money is explicitly used to improve transportation in their region.”

Key Survey Findings

• For each additional hour traffic adds to a weekend car trip, travel demand drops by an average of about 18%.

• Two-thirds (66.1%) of auto travelers said they would rather pay an additional $2-$3 each way to fund transportation projects than sit for an additional 1.5 to 2.0 hours in traffic each way.

• More respondents (60%) said traffic congestion would be a greater deterrent to car travel than a 25 cent increase in gas taxes (40%).

• Overall, most auto travelers (80%) said that additional gas taxes will not negatively impact the frequency of their travel by car. Among these travelers, nearly 89% said up to a 25-cent gas tax increase would not negatively impact their car travel.

• When told Congress is considering proposals to increase other taxes and fees on drivers that would result in transportation improvements, 64.8% of auto travelers are willing to support such proposals.

o 23% said they are unwilling to support such proposals because there is no assurance that the funding would go to projects in their region.

How Congress Can Solve the Problem

“Our survey gave travelers a choice: would you rather pay more, or continue to sit in traffic?” said Dow. “Two-thirds said they would rather pay a little more. We hope that gives Congress some encouragement to make difficult decisions, because data shows us that inaction is putting the brakes on connectivity and prosperity.”

The maps and survey accompanies U.S. Travel’s infrastructure policy platform, which includes policy solutions to addressing congestion issues in America:

• Increasing sustainable investment in infrastructure through user fees, for which Congress should consider all available options. Strong majorities of travelers view congestion as a greater deterrent than increases in user fees.

• Authorizing a Projects of National and Regional Significance Program. While Congress established a discretionary grant program for mega-projects that significantly improve the movement of freight, a similar program does not exist for moving people.

• Establishing a National Travel Mobility program to get beyond the highway-focused strategies of today. The goal: provide annual funding to states to invest in the next generation of mobility solutions—whether it’s passenger rail, new and innovative technologies, or completing the Interstate system.

Building the Congestion Maps

Within each congestion map, U.S. Travel measured the average drive time between cities under three different conditions during the 2018 study period: ideal (driving with no congestion); summer (driving during the most congested conditions in the summer); and peak (driving during the most congested conditions during all of the study period).

The results show that in the time it takes to drive between major U.S. cities during summer and peak hours, Americans could travel hundreds of miles farther if they had the efficient, safe and modern transportation network that our nation deserves.

For example, along the I-95 corridor from Washington, DC to New York, the study found that in the additional drive time during peak conditions, travelers could drive an additional 127 miles—the equivalent distance to New London, CT.

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