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Stimulus, Slowing Me Down

by Editor on July 17th, 2010

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

The Merritt Parkway is a lovely, four-lane road (two in each direction) that cuts through much of southern Connecticut, from the New York line to just past New Haven. For a driver, among its pleasures are the freedom from trucks—it’s much too small for commercial traffic, with lots of low overhanging bridges and sharp curves—and its many trees. It is truly a parkway.

Notwithstanding the National Trust for Historic Preservation placing the road on its 2010 “endangered” list, I have always considered the Merritt to be among the better roads to drive on. It seems well-maintained, certainly relative to I-95, its bigger and uglier parallel sibling. While storms sometimes damage trees (and thus slow down drivers), and of course accidents hold things up, the Merritt has been reliably drivable. Indeed, even in the worst traffic—such as around holidays—it remains my strong preference. The alternatives are uglier, no less congested, and generally unpleasant.

The state of Connecticut must agree with the National Trust, however: they have chosen to spend $70 million in Federal “stimulus” funds on road improvements to the Merritt. … The near-term results of which are massive traffic jams and slowdowns. On a recent nighttime drive, three separate road work spots added a combined hour of delay to my northbound trip.

You could call this “stimulating,” but not in a good way. Indeed, it seems more than a little ironic that stimulus funds are being used in a way that so dramatically wastes time and energy (gasoline), and I find myself splutteringly frustrated even thinking about how to calculate this. But lets try. Some sources (such as the White House) report that the Merritt sees 60,000 cars per day; since the construction seems to be affecting only one side at a time, primarily during nighttime hours, let’s cut that in half to 30,000 (one half of the road) and estimate that 40% of that number travels at night, to get to 12,000 drivers during the hours when construction is taking place and therefore affected by the slow down.

The construction affects a nine mile long stretch of the parkway. Hopefully every car on the road gets better mileage than nine miles to the gallon—but with the construction forcing cars to idle (or inch forward), it is entirely conceivable that the effective mileage for each car has been reduced to just that. (After all: when you’re not moving, your car gets zero miles to the gallon.) Wasting two gallons of gasoline per car comes out to 24,000 gallons of gas wasted each day just on the Merritt. At an average pump price of $2.85, that’s $68,400 dollars wasted, per day. If it takes six months (180 days) to complete the roadwork then total fuel waste is 4,320,000 gallons, at a cost of $12,312,000.

Then there’s the impact on people’s time. If the average delay is similar to what I recently experienced—one hour—that’s also 12,000 work hours per day lost to this “stimulus”-funded construction project, assuming one person per car. Over the course of 180 days, that’s 2,160,000 work hours. If we generously say that each of those hours is worth $100 (hey, this is Connecticut we’re talking about) that’s $216,000,000 in wasted time. Add in the fuel costs, and that’s $228,312,000 wasted in time and fuel.

$228 million wasted for a $70 million “stimulus” funds road improvement program. That is not even calculating the environmental impact of all that gasoline spent on nothing.  Sure, that $70 million is going to create jobs to do the roadwork, and the jobs required to create the materials used in the roadwork.  But there’s still no comparing $70 million invested to $228 million wasted.  We might as well give that $70 million away by sprinkling it on the streets, which is still likely to create less traffic and less waste.

No question, it’s easier to complain than come up with solutions. If the state of Connecticut says the road needs to be fixed, who am I to say it ain’t so. And sure, someone could make an argument about how much better and more efficient the road will be when it’s done (though it’s not a road widening project, so the efficiency benefits are limited). But the state could make a better effort to inform drivers of the delays before they’re suddenly upon them, and suggest detour routes, and even provide digital signage that estimates (and updates) the length of the delays, so that drivers can make informed decisions. If you’re driving from Bridgeport to Milford, odds are there are local roads that (under these circumstances) would be faster than joining the mass of clogged vehicles on the Merritt. If you’re driving from New York to or past New Haven, you might decide to stick it out—though, still, recommended diversions to I-95 or I-84 could help address the overall problem. Instead, Connecticut provides little in the way of driver information and assistance until it’s too late to do much about it.

Perhaps the biggest lesson in this is the one no one in government will ever learn: loudly proclaiming to drivers stuck in miserable slowdowns that the roadwork is being funded by Federal “stimulus” dollars … may not be having the impact you think, or desire, on this captive automotive audience.

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