Talking about traffic may be the quintessential Charlotte activity, and nobody could talk about Charlotte traffic like Bill Finger.
A traffic planner for the city of Charlotte from 1977 to 2006 — a stretch when the city’s population more than doubled and major roads such as Interstate 277 and I-485 were planned and built — Finger knew roads and drivers like few others. And he was renowned for being able to explain his work in ways regular people could understand.
“Bill Finger has a parable for every pothole, a tale for every traffic light,” Richard Rubin wrote in a 2006 Observer article about Finger’s retirement. “Sure, the city’s assistant transportation director can talk jargon with the best bureaucrats around. But when Finger speaks to politicians and the public, he embraces the grand Southern storytelling tradition.”
Finger died Dec. 23 at age 72, according to his obituary. His memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 29, at St. John’s Baptist Church.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that if you’ve driven in the Charlotte region in recent decades — or plan to in coming ones — your life has been touched by Finger’s work.
There were the big projects, such as the inner and outer loops around Charlotte and the conversion of Independence Boulevard into an expressway. There was the constant attempt to keep up with or get ahead of growth around the region.
Assistant City Manager Danny Pleasant, a former Charlotte Department of Transportation director, said Finger pioneered the use of reversible lanes — the ones with overhead lights that can change the direction of traffic flow — back when the Hornets coliseum on Tyvola Road was the big pro sports draw in town.
And yes, Finger’s work with traffic management laid the groundwork for the now-controversial toll lanes under construction on I-77 north of Charlotte, said former co-worker Bill Coxe, now a transportation director for the city of Huntersville. Finger saw managed lanes, including high-occupancy lanes and toll lanes, as rational ways to cope with booming growth, Coxe said.
“Bill referred to traffic as dealing with flow theory. That’s just how his brain worked,” Coxe recalled.
Pleasant says Finger also helped develop Charlotte’s public transportation system, including the CATS bus system and light rail lines. An avid cyclist — Finger often rode to his uptown office from his home in southeast Charlotte — he also worked to make the city’s roads safer for bikes and pedestrians, Pleasant says.
Mary Newsom, a former Observer associate editor who is now a freelance writer and editor, recalls how much she enjoyed interviewing Finger because of his depth.
“A lot of urbanists around the country mock traffic engineering for the way it basically screwed up cities’ traffic in the 20th century by making it impossible to get anywhere except by driving,” she wrote in an email to the Observer Friday. “But Bill was a devoted bicycler, and he totally understood how the outerbelt, which was being built in the 1990s, wasn’t going to help relieve congestion, and how cul-de-sacs basically make traffic worse everywhere else.”
The grandson of a Charlotte streetcar conductor, Finger grew up in the Chantilly neighborhood and attended Garinger High School, according to the 2006 Observer article and his obituary. He earned a master’s degree in transportation engineering from Georgia Tech in 1970 and served in the Army afterward, his obituary reports.
When he retired as the city’s assistant transportation director in 2006, his enthusiasm for working with and talking about transportation was legendary.
“Roads really pump him up. He’s as passionate about roads as I am about chocolate,” then-city council member Lynn Wheeler told the Observer in 2000.
Finger told the Observer’s Dianne Whitacre about the time he was on a weekend bike ride and encountered a traffic jam at Randolph and Sharon Amity roads. Finger pulled over, used his city key to open the roadside cabinet that controls the traffic signal and began operating the light manually.
According to that article, Finger ended up explaining to police officers why some guy in spandex shorts was monkeying around with the traffic lights — a task made tougher because he didn’t have his city ID.
Mayor Vi Lyles, who was a longtime city employee before running for office in 2013, remembers seeing Finger at that task. “He was an engineer,” Lyles said Friday, “but more important, he was somebody who thought about serving the public.”
While Finger was arguably obsessed with traffic, he was hardly one-dimensional. Coxe and Pleasant say he loved hockey, trains and travel. After his retirement, he and his wife, Linda, took a train trip along the route of the Lewis and Clark expedition, Coxe recalls.
And Finger had a sense of humor. Coxe says Finger, himself known for “driving at a brisk pace,” liked to borrow a city radar gun for his frequent trips to Raleigh. When he’d crest a hill, he’d fire the gun and chuckle at all the brake lights flashing on vehicles using radar detectors.
Finger also used to quip that he had a solution for traffic congestion: Force all commuters to find a new home halfway between their current residence and their workplace. Not only would that mean a lot less driving, Coxe recalls Finger saying, but it would be a boon to Realtors and divorce lawyers.
“He was a wonderful friend,” Coxe says, “and a wonderful asset to the community.”