Nightmares on our Streets, or How to Bring Traffic to a Standstill

Corpus Christi, Front Page, Opinion/Editorial, Travel


     Traffic engineering in simple terms provides for the safe and efficient flow of traffic on roadways.  At best, it is an imperfect system, and at worst, it can be a nightmare.  Most drivers experience traffic delays due to road maintenance, accidents, or severe delays or stoppage due to poor design coupled with congestion.  This can often be experienced on the IH-35 corridor between San Antonio and Austin.  Poorly designed interchanges and freeway entrances and exits are the major cause for delay along our Interstate Highway System.  Poorly placed traffic lights, intersection design and location, poorly maintained roads, as well as speed bumps cause problems on local roadways.

     Despite congestion around major cities and a few design flaws, our Interstate Highway System is a marvel. This 47,856-mile network of roads was established in 1956 by the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956.  President Dwight D. Eisenhower who had experienced travel on the Reichsautobahn in Germany is credited with the championing and the creation of the Interstate.  It was – and is – quite an accomplishment when compared to such modern legislative marvels as Obamacare.  The Interstate took 35 years to complete at a cost of $114 billion with more than 1,300 miles per year being completed.  It kind of makes you wonder why contemporary road construction is so slow.  About 70 percent of the funding for the Interstate is paid for through federal and state fuel taxes and is supplemented to a lesser extent by toll roads. Toll roads are advantageous because the people using the road pay for it.  One example is the Kansas Turnpike which is integrated with IH- 35.  The Kansas Turnpike is a 236-mile toll road that was completed in 1956 after two years of construction.  Nearly 120,000 drivers use the road daily, and it derives its entire funding from collected tolls.  No tax money is used for administration or maintenance.  Truly a modern marvel.

Crossing the causeway in 1950
Crossing the causeway in 2017

     Our Interstate Highway System was declared complete in October of 1992, but plans for expansion continue.  One expansion was initiated to facilitate trade with Canada and Mexico.  This expansion was spurred by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) which became effective in January 1994.  The proposed highway, IH-69, is supposed to connect Tamaulipas, Mexico, to Ontario, Canada.  It has been 23 years since this began, and little construction has been completed.  A lack of funding is the largest contributory factor, so I would suggest that Canada and Mexico should pay for it since they are the biggest beneficiaries.  However, Mexico should only pay its portion after it pays for The Wall.

     While our Interstate Highway System is a marvel, local roads are often poorly maintained, and at times you have to wonder about the quality of traffic engineering.  I suspect that on a local level political pressure has too great of an influence on traffic engineering.  For example, speed bumps have become the norm on many residential streets.  Presumably they are built to slow down traffic, but the poor condition of many residential streets forces the traffic to slow down without speed bumps, and speed bumps merely aggravate the problem.  The speed limit on residential streets is 30 miles per hour, but speed bumps force you to drive at around 10 miles per hour, so is this good traffic engineering?  If the desired residential speed limit is ten miles per hour, then post a sign that says ten miles per hour and eliminate the speed bumps.  In some cases, the speed bumps are too high, so they should be called speed mountains.  This is evidenced by the scarring on the speed mountains caused by cars dragging their undercarriage over the mountain.   It would seem that local traffic engineering prefers to sacrifice the efficient travel of the many  for the benefit of the few.

     Traffic light placement and timing are critical to efficient travel, and many of the newer light systems are using advanced technology to help the flow of traffic.  The new light systems using artificial intelligence are sometimes referred to as smart lights.  The new traffic light located on Park Road 22 at Aquarius Street is one type of smart light called Advance Warning for End of Green System (AWEGS). This lighting system provides advanced notice to motorist approaching the traffic signal to stop, kind of like the old sign that said “traffic signal ahead.” Advance warning signs are generally believed to be most effective at intersections hidden from the view of approaching traffic and on highways where traffic signals are least expected. In other words, they are believed to be effective in locations where a traffic light should not be located. The AWEG System is effective at reducing the number of motorists running the red light, which has been demonstrated at installations in College Station, Brenham, and other locations around the state. The system works best when traffic volumes are under 15,000 motorists daily. When traffic volumes are greater than 15,000, traffic backs up, and the advanced warning system is less effective. Many motorist have already experienced the delays on Park Road 22 during spring break and Memorial Day weekend. Motorists should expect more delays with the upcoming Independence Day holiday. It seems a smart light cannot overcome a dumb location.

     Other than the frustration of traffic delays, there are real costs. Texas A&M Transportation Institute reported that traffic delays due to congestion caused drivers to waste more than three billion gallons of fuel and kept travelers stuck in their car for nearly seven billion extra hours in 2015. The total cost nationwide was $160 billion. I suppose that if you are in the energy business, traffic congestion might be a good thing, but if you are a frustrated motorist trying to get home, there is no good side to traffic congestion. Either way it is comforting to know our traffic engineers are doing their part to increase congestion and bring travel to a standstill. After all, as American humorist, Evan Esar put it:  “The car was invented as a convenient place to sit out traffic jams.”


Until next time…

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A citizen of the United States of America, a Texan and a resident of Flour Bluff, Dan Thornton, values enlightened reason and freedom. Dan is a lifelong student of history and philosophy, and a writer of poetry and song. The hallmark of his pursuit is a quest for universal truth. By admission, the answer is illusive, but he is undaunted, and the quest continues.

If it is Free…

Front Page, Opinion/Editorial

     The advertising industry has long been aware of the magical qualities associated with the word free and has used the word widely in advertising. “Buy one get one free,” “Free with purchase,” “Free samples,” and Totally free” all serve to get the attention of the would-be customer.  In fact, with the exception of freeloader, there are few examples of the use of the word free that are not positive.  Free is so deeply ingrained in our collective psyche that people are disarmed by its usage and are willing to stand in line, fight crowds and apparently spend money in order to get something for nothing.  Oddly, people have not yet figured out that nothing is free.  But beyond advertising, free speech, free press, and free enterprise, as used in our society, also serve to solidify the positive connotations of the word free.


     To cite just one example, free enterprise has proven to be a powerful positive influence on our republic. Free enterprise allows individuals to go into business for themselves and receive the profit or loss from their businesses.  A person may produce anything imaginable without restraint.  By releasing people’s imaginations, free enterprise has allowed the United States to develop and become a world power, unlike any other in history.  But is free truly magical?  Is everything free, good or even desirable?

     Consider free trade for example. Free trade in its simplest terms promises commercial trade without the fetters of borders, tariffs, regulation, and market manipulation.  In short, free trade promises a level playing field where supply and demand coupled with competition determine prices.  Consumer benefit from lower prices, and producers benefit from efficiency of scale, the proverbial win, win.  We have seen this play out in trade agreements such as, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the European Union.


     Considering just NAFTA for the moment, consumers have seen a reduction in the price of consumer products, but there is more to the story. NAFTA is the result of cooperation between Republicans and Democrats in what is considered a bi-partisan agreement.  NAFTA was signed by Bill Clinton in December 1993 and became law in 1994.  The effects of the new agreement were not immediate, but by the time George W. Bush became president, the negative effects had become apparent in the form of job losses for the United States.  According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, in 2004, 2.8 million manufacturing jobs had been lost, and job losses were continuing at about the rate of 100,000 per year.  The irony of the situation could not help but be noticed, consumers got lower-priced products, but consumer income was less due to the loss of jobs, so they could not buy the new low-cost products.  I would be remiss if I did not point out that free trade proponents would claim that there is no net job losses, but rather the jobs were moved to a foreign country.  While this may be true, it provides little comfort to the unemployed in the United States if that is your concern.  It is apparently not the concern of free trade supporters.  But there is more to free trade than low prices and job losses.


     The European Union (EU) was established in 1999 and became fully functional in 2002. The EU is more than a free trade agreement; it is a hybrid political economic union with supranational powers and intergovernmental decision-making bodies.  The seven governing bodies are the European Council, the Council of the European Union, the European Parliament, the European Commission, the Court of Justice of the European Union, the European Central Bank, and the European Court of Auditors.  While free trade might be an objective of the EU, clearly there is much more to the organization.  It is not within the scope of this article to dissect the seven governmental bodies of the EU, but it should be obvious to any reader that the governmental bodies add significant cost to the EU and could well offset the benefits of free trade, but there is more to it.  It is the supranational powers that have caused people from the member nations to question the EU.  As it turns out, the member nations gave up their sovereignty by joining the EU.  For example, France could through its legal system determine that a refugee is a terrorist risk and decide to deport the refugee.  Based on supranational powers, the EU could overrule France and require that the refugee remain in France.  This has become a sore spot for the citizens of the member nations, as we have seen from the recent vote in Great Britain.


     While some would argue, that the EU is a unique and not purely a free trade agreement, it is important to realize that all trade agreements have the capacity to undermine sovereignty. A provision of the NAFTA agreement required that Mexico cancel Article 27 of its constitution.  Article 27 protected communal Indian land holdings from sale or privatization, and a revolution had been fought to gain this provision.  However, it was seen as a barrier to investment and incompatible to NAFTA, so Article 27 was abolished.  Sovereignty be damned.


     Free traders argue that sovereignty is not all that important and refer to it as nationalism in an effort to demean its supporters. They remind us that we have a global economy and that we must go along in order to get along.  Such arguments are nonsense, of course.  Sovereignty is the very reason for nations to exist.  Lacking sovereignty all nations would cease to exist, but of course, that is what free traders actually want.  Free traders long for a global government, a new world order or a world without borders.  George Bush, Sr. referenced the ”New World Order” in 1991, and on the eve of Operation Desert Storm in Iraq said, “We have before us the opportunity to forge for ourselves and for future generations a new world order – a world where the rule of law, not the rule of the jungle, governs the conduct of nations.”  Of course in the intervening years, “New World Order” has been replaced by the less offensive term “Globalism,” but the end game remains the same.  Free trade is but a stepping stone leading to that end.


     Oddly, I have heard people claim that free trade is a conservative issue.  That claim is false of course, perhaps they are dazzled by the use of the word free, or perhaps they are confusing it with free enterprise.  One thing is for certain, free trade is far from free.


     The power of the word free is best summed up by my friend, Stacie Kopecky, who is inclined to say, “If it is free, I’ll take three.”


     Until next time…

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A citizen of the United States of America, a Texan and a resident of Flour Bluff, Dan Thornton, values enlightened reason and freedom. Dan is a lifelong student of history and philosophy, and a writer of poetry and song. The hallmark of his pursuit is a quest for universal truth. By admission, the answer is illusive, but he is undaunted, and the quest continues.