Dec 6, 2022 - News

North Carolina could be wasting millions on widening roads without fixing traffic

Independence Boulevard Katie Peralta Soloff

Independence Boulevard. Photo: Katie Peralta Soloff/Axios

The bipartisan infrastructure law will distribute billions of dollars for road construction across the U.S., including $100 million to widen I-85 in Gaston County from six to eight lanes. But some say much of it will be in vain.

What’s happening: According to the idea of induced demand, if you widen a road to relieve traffic jams, driving becomes easier for people. But the new lanes will become congested again in a matter of time, experts warn.

  • In Charlotte, Independence Boulevard remains the notorious example of a roadway that’s been expanded several times and is still clogged.

What they’re saying: “Highway capacity incentivizes development to take place farther out. And for a while, at least, it gives people a better commute … It doesn’t take long for congestion to come right back into the system,” says Danny Pleasant, the former director of the Charlotte Department of Transportation.

Why it matters: Some see the N.C. Department of Transportation as wasting millions to widen roads each year, only to temporarily fix traffic delays and add to its maintenance burden.

  • “It’s not the highest and best use of tax dollars,” Charlotte mayor pro tem Braxton Winston says, of widening 85. “We would be much better, I think, if we focus on providing mass transit and public transportation for commuting in and out and through the corridors.”
  • Multiple-lane roads are dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists, too.
  • There are plenty of environmental concerns as well. Studies have found that states could significantly increase emissions by adding highway lanes, as the New York Times reported.

By the numbers: The amount of miles driven increases proportionately with the miles of new interstate highway lanes, one of the more commonly referenced studies about induced demand found.

  • Because of induced demand, 90% of new urban roadways are overwhelmed within five years, according to the Surface Transportation Policy Project.

Of note: ​​NCDOT did not respond to a question from Axios about criticism over induced demand. A spokesperson said engineers took induced demand into account as part of a traffic forecast for widening the 10 miles of I-85.

Zoom out: Over the last 25 years, the city of Charlotte has prioritized investments in mobility options, like biking and walking paths. There’s not much land left in Charlotte to expand roads, anyway. Plus, it’s expensive.

  • “Generally speaking, our roads should not be high-speed runways,” Winston says. “We should be building places and neighborhoods for people to exist in 24/7.”
  • The city’s deputy transportation director, Ed McKinney, says he would “flip around” the idea of induced demand from cars to other alternatives. “If you don’t have a bicycle facility on a road, that means you don’t feel safe and comfortable using it as a cyclist.

“If we put a facility on that road, we’re hoping that we’re inducing demand around that mode and providing the infrastructure that makes and changes behavior of how people move,” McKinney says.

Yes, but: It makes sense the state transportation department would take a less urban approach than CDOT. NCDOT has an economic growth mission that includes moving goods through interstates, and it must consider the state’s rural population of 4.6 million (as of 2019).

  • City councilman Ed Driggs, Charlotte’s transportation committee chair, says there is some merit to the idea of induced demand, but, he asks: “How quickly are we creating alternatives to cars?

“In other words, the demand for a road … has to be respected or taken into account,” Driggs says.

Zoom in: Besides integrating more mobility infrastructure, Charlotte is dealing with traffic congestion in two main ways.

  1. It works with private developers on a site-by-site basis to determine whether changes must be made to a road, such as extending a turn lane, to accommodate the additional cars a project will draw in. “That typically doesn’t always mean widening the road,” McKinney says. “It just means reallocating the space that we already have.”
  2. It builds completely new roads to create connectivity, “so that people have more options about how they move,” McKinney says.

For example, a future road called Bryant Farms is years in the making. As developers have pursued projects along the planned corridor, CDOT has asked that land be persevered for the road, which will run parallel to the busy Ardrey Kell Road, one of the few east-west routes in that part of Charlotte. Once complete, Bryant Farms will have one lane in each direction, a center turn lane, a wide path for cyclists and sidewalks on both sides.

So, why does NCDOT keep widening roads? Urban design specialist Eric Zaverl of Sustain Charlotte says the state is “on autopilot” building highways. “This is real, this concept of induced demand, and most traffic engineers know this,” he says. “But they’re also stuck in a closed system where there is no choice.”

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