WASHINGTON -- It is peculiar: The secretary of transportation is not a household name. But Mary Peters -- now you know -- is more important than most public officials to improving America's economic dynamism and reducing the aggravation of everyday life.
It is perverse: In today's information-intensive economy, the costs of information often approach zero and the speed at which it moves approaches instantaneousness. But the speed that many users of information travel to where they use it to produce goods and services is slowing, and the costs of this are rising.
Traffic congestion is even worse than you think, according to Peters, a fourth-generation Arizonan and a grandmother whose preferred mode of transportation is her Harley-Davidson. In the last 20 years, congestion in the 85 largest cities has caused the number of hours lost each year by the average driver in rush hours to increase from 16 to 47. In the 13 largest cities, drivers are stuck in traffic the equivalent of nearly eight work days. Congestion's immediate and indirect economic costs -- not including lost serenity, family time and civic engagement -- just begin with fuel and wear and tear on vehicles.
Innovative "just in time" delivery practices have enabled businesses to control inventories, thereby modulating business cycles. Congestion, however, is forcing supply-chain managers to hold larger inventories or build more distribution centers, thereby increasing the transportation and logistics components of GDP.
In 2009, Peters says, the highway trust fund, largely filled by the federal gasoline tax (18.4 cents per gallon), will go into deficit. Because inertia usually governs the government, Congress might simply increase and index the tax, thereby avoiding two inconveniences -- fresh thinking, and departures from the status quo.
There must be new highways and new lanes on some old ones. But there also must be new ways -- made possible by new technologies -- of using lanes.
The usual scolds -- environmentalists, urban "planners," enthusiasts for public transit (less than 5 percent of the work force uses it) -- argue that more highways encourage more driving ("induced demand") and hence are self-defeating. But as Ted Balaker and Sam Staley respond in their new book on congestion, "The Road More Traveled," among the 10 largest metropolitan areas, Los Angeles has the least pavement per person; Dallas has twice as much per person and half as much congestion. Furthermore, when new schools are built because old ones have become congested, and then the new ones fill up with children from families attracted by new schools, who argues that building the new ones was a mistake?