Highway Standstills Show Economic Growth

June 5, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — Many indicators can reflect the economic growth of a region. Some are tracked by economists, while others aren’t.

An increase in population is one that is tracked. So are rises in jobs and wages.

But how about traffic congestion? Those frequent backups that often are longer than your nine-year-old’s Christmas list are not only ignored, but also regularly cursed. Yet, these aggravating, bumper-to-bumper snarled crawls on freeways and main streets are sure signs of a growing economy.

And here’s the proof.

Let’s start with the first indicator: a population increase. Did one happen here? Of course. According to the latest Census Bureau figures, the population for Kent and Ottawa counties soared by 18 percent from 1991 to 2000. Those years brought 124,250 men, women and children to both counties, an increase larger than the total population of Lansing even when the lawmakers and lobbyists are in town.

Most of those folks who came here likely did so after 1993, the year economists pegged as the one that really started the nation’s business growth. It was the year of that infamous tax increase, which gave center stage to Alan Greenspan and birth to the federal surplus.

So it’s probably fair to write that much of the decade’s economic growth in Kent and Ottawa counties happened after the tax increase, say from 1994 to 1999. By the way, traffic first began to congest here in 1994.

A coincidence? Hardly.

OK, now we’re ready to look at the second indicator.

From 1994 through 1999, the growth years, monthly employment for both counties rose by 16.1 percent — a figure just a nudge below the population increase. The counties reported 57,728 more monthly jobs to the state in 1999 than both reported in 1994.

Here is the third indicator.

From 1994 through 1999, those growth years, weekly wages for both counties rose by 22.6 percent — a figure a few nudges above the increases in jobs and in population.

On average, workers were making $112.82 more per week in 1999 than they were in 1994. In between was a period of low inflation and a tight labor market due to the growing economy. That weekly increase was worth another $5,800 in annual disposable income.

Now to the real nitty-gritty: the traffic congestion.

The increase in population put more drivers on the roads — more really awful drivers, too, as you’ve probably noticed — who had to get to their jobs in order to collect their higher paychecks. Because they were earning more money, many bought vehicles to get them to and from work. Because the economy was booming, new businesses started and existing ones grew, and they, too, bought more vans and trucks.

So, before you could say “show me the economic indicators,” the growing economy had put more drivers and vehicles on the roads in both counties. And the numbers, by golly, back that claim.

From 1994 through 1999, still the growth years, registration of passenger and commercial vehicles for both counties rose by 14.6 percent — a figure in harmony with the population, job and wage growth numbers. In 1999, there were 84,844 more cars, trucks, SUVs and vans registered to both counties than there were just six years earlier in 1994.

By 1999, 666,756 vehicles were registered to residents and businesses of both counties and all were using the same roads that nearly 85,000 fewer vehicles used in 1994.

Now for the icing on the congestion-as-an-economic-indicator cake.

Commercial vehicles led that registration rush. The number of business trucks and vans registered to both counties rose by a staggering 24.5 percent from 1994 to 1999 — a faster growth rate than the population, job and wage numbers and one that reflected the rising economy.

Adding more evidence to the argument for making traffic congestion an officially tracked economic indicator were passenger vehicle registration, which went up by 11.9 percent for both counties over those same years. Remember, of the 16-percent increase in population, about 20 percent either don’t drive or aren’t old enough to drive.

So when you’re on your way to or from your Fourth of July break and you suddenly find yourself sitting perfectly still on a jammed U.S. 131, don’t curse the backup.

Instead, reverently bow your head a bit and silently give thanks for all the economic progress that we’ve made over the last few years.

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