North Carolina loves to build roads. An anomaly among states, the N.C. Department of Transportation owns and maintains virtually every street and roadway mile, border to border, outside municipal limits. Counties aren't in charge.
The result: uniform, generally high road quality across the state. Neighboring S.C. and Virginia roads, on the whole, don't compete.
Those have aided North Carolina's impressive economic progress.
But North Carolina is rapidly transforming from a “small-town” state into a “big-city” state.
The challenge, especially in times of fiscal stringency, energy shortages and a need for more compact growth, won't be more roads. It will be to maintain those already built.
And as the demand grows for rail – between cities and within urban regions – we question the wisdom of building even some roads now on the planning boards.
Several Charlotte regional roadway projects need a tough new examination:
Set to run parallel to U.S. 74, this 22-mile toll road would be a big sprawl-inducer.
It's advertised as relieving congestion. But any relief would be temporary.
The Monroe bypass would lure more subdivisions to Union County – a county already having difficulty providing sewer service to new homes. Residents of those new subdivisions would quickly fill the bypass with more traffic.
This would expand the region's footprint and produce even longer commutes, more traffic jams and a less navigable region.
I-485, I-85, Shelby bypass
Other projects of questionable merit include the Shelby bypass in Cleveland County and the widening of Interstate 85 in Cabarrus County.
Consider not completing the Interstate 485 ring road between I-77 and I-85 north of Charlotte. Beltways are a 1970s-era solution that were inappropriate sprawl-machines then, and even less appropriate now in a region investing heavily in mass transit.
And while the high cost of modern transit systems generates debate, the price of today's roads, though less discussed, is sometimes startling.
We took a careful look at contemplated projects on the N.C. DOT's “strategic corridor” map – basically a list of pending highway projects. There are supposedly “small” projects, such as a new interchange at I-77 and I-40 in Statesville, priced at more than $200 million. The Monroe bypass is estimated to cost $757 million, approaching twice the cost of Charlotte's new Lynx Blue Line.
This is not to say all highway building should be stopped. Growing urban regions need streets and highways. But the rationale and likely impacts, and a project's place in line as a regional priority, should be more carefully considered.
A prime example: the Garden Parkway. To be built by the turnpike authority and priced at more than $750 million, it is a toll road set to go through Gaston County from I-485 near Charlotte/Douglas International Airport west to I-85 just shy of South Carolina. The highway – in the words of one grinning regional business leader – “would open this whole area up for development.” Farms and forests would give way to malls, office parks and subdivisions.
It would be a sprawl-inducer akin to the Monroe bypass.
However, there are some solid business reasons for completing the road. It would allow hundreds, if not thousands, of trucks daily to go from the Charlotte airport's new intermodal center onto I-85. So the road makes sense – but only if the state builds it as a “truckway.”
A road meant only for trucks can be built more cheaply and financed with truck fees. It can be narrower, perhaps only two lanes, with few or no exits beside the one into the Charlotte airport intermodal facility, all substantially reducing its cost.
With a truckway, the Charlotte region would get the business benefits of an enhanced intermodal facility without the harmful sprawl-inducing effects. It would also symbolize the type of forward-thinking, technologically innovative initiatives that Charlotte touts as a signature characteristic.
Such truckways are being planned for several high-volume freight corridors, including the Alameda Corridor in Los Angeles and between Canada and the United States near Detroit.
There is a big difference between infrastructure needed for industry and infrastructure needed for sprawl. The first significantly helps the economy. The second does not. A truck loaded with parts and materials for a medical manufacturing plant in Rock Hill needs to get through. It's important for the health of the economy.
Changing gears from a “parkway” to a “truckway,” for example, and being more open to helping with transit as well as roads would mark a huge mission shift for the N.C. DOT, an organization that has “HIGHWAYS” chiseled over the door of its white-columned buildings in Raleigh.
A new mission for DOT
Some observers told us the change could never happen.
But we found, in our interviews inside that white-columned Raleigh citadel of highways, some officials who “get it.” There's growing recognition that North Carolina's needs are different from those of the past century, that the time of great road projects may be over and that the mission ahead will be to advance mobility – transit included – to meet the needs of a denser, more urban state.
As Charlotte's and the state's needs turn to transit, it makes sense to get the N.C. DOT more involved in this effort.
One reason the mindset and bureaucratic mission shift are key is that the half-cent sales tax for transit is limited to Mecklenburg.
But rail lines, like roads, don't stop – and shouldn't – at county lines. As surrounding counties' transit interest grows, the goal should be a true regionwide tax for the expansions and services the times demand – and to get the N.C. DOT involved in helping make this happen.