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More lanes aren’t the best answer for North Carolina

From Roger Diedrich, Transportation Issues Chair, North Carolina Chapter, Sierra Club:

The North Carolina Senate has moved a bill that would ultimately increase the gas tax, which has elicited considerable reaction by the public and the press. What no one is talking about is what this would mean for spending. What would get built that we won’t get without the tax increase?

The answer is, without explicit direction, we will get more roads, and as a result, more congestion.

This sounds counterintuitive, but when there are more open lanes, more travelers choose to make more and longer trips in their car. A free good – in this case, open lanes – generates more demand for that good. If we really want to reduce congestion, we need to spend in ways that will give people choices other than car travel.

Generally that means public transit, bicycles and walking, and when offered in a well-designed setting (think Uptown and other concentrated areas), people flock to these options.

Developers are very busy along the light rail’s Blue Line extension, which means jobs. The North Carolina Department of Transportation’s draft 10-year program would spend over $10 billion with a split of 98 percent for highways, 2 percent for non-highway projects. In the Charlotte area, it’s a 99.4 percent to 0.6 percent split.

Their choices are driven by the department’s new “data driven” strategic transportation investment process, but that process has numerous built-in biases that favor road options.

A similar debate is ongoing on the federal level, with legislators representing rural counties objecting to spending transportation dollars for transit and bike lanes. At a congressional hearing Wednesday on a White House proposal that would include an increase in transit spending, Transportation Secretary and former Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx said “I don’t think we should plan for a (transportation) system that’s 1956. We should plan for 2045.”

He went on to say “I think the small amount we’re putting into bike and pedestrian is worth it. I think the mistake is (to think) that transit isn’t critical.”

In a broader perspective, the public has already made the choice to drive less. According to the USDOT Federal Highway Administration, traffic volume, adjusted for population, has leveled off since about June 2006. There are many reasons for this, among them the introduction of telecommunication, which brings less driving by youth, who find social media a useful substitute.

Another factor is an aging population that might prefer less driving, and the realization that non-auto travel can offer savings to the individual. Of course, those options are not for everyone, and they need to be properly designed and located, but our local planners have placed numerous such projects in plans that have no prospect for funding for many years.

We need more attention to this gross imbalance in transportation spending, and the state gas tax bill could include the necessary leverage.