Widening I-77 won’t fix root of problem

Widening the roads won’t fix I-77’s traffic woes; instead, we need to invest in other transportation options.
Widening the roads won’t fix I-77’s traffic woes; instead, we need to invest in other transportation options.

As an urban planner with a national practice, I am frequently asked by friends and colleagues for an opinion on the Interstate 77 toll lane discussion. I’ve been all across the country so when I return home to watch a discussion about spending more than a half billion dollars on a single-purpose facility, I not only wonder if that is the answer, but I wonder whether anyone is asking the right question.

The question seems to be only this: How fast can we widen I-77? The foregone conclusion to solving all our transportation woes from uptown Charlotte to Statesville is to run out to the highway store, after eating our way through the holiday season, and buy a pair of fat pants and a bigger belt.

Instead, the question should be: How do we most facilitate more reliable north-to-south mobility? And, assuming that a half-billion dollars were miraculously sitting on the table to spend, why would we dump it into one project? Where are our choices?

There is no highway wide enough to accommodate growth’s demands. Transportation researchers have already proven that the inconvenient truth of “induced demand” will sap capacity in additional “free” lanes within a generation. Induced demand is a well-proven, if counterintuitive, result. Highway widening will increase demand (congestion) for capacity rather than relieve it.

The demand-based pricing strategies for toll lanes will at least keep some cars flowing. In that regard, that is the only type of new freeway lane that makes any sense in Charlotte. To offer additional free lanes would simply open new land for development farther out, causing it to fill with “induced demand.”

The lesson from Texas, where managed lanes are now everywhere , is that adding free lanes is the functional equivalent of throwing money down a rat hole. The 23-lane, Interstate 10 corridor in Houston, which combines free lanes and managed (toll) lanes, saw total commute times increase by more than 32 minutes from 2011 to today. Are we Houston? Not yet. But with a growth projection that our metropolitan area will double in the next 40 years, we’ll be Houston before we know it.

This leads me to the elephant in the room – transit. Dedicated-corridor transit is the only mobility solution that can ensure consistent travel times from point to point regardless of demand. With 90 miles of light rail infrastructure and 62 stations, the Dallas transit system accommodates nearly 100,000 passenger trips every day – about the same daily volume as I-77. Most important, the system helps Dallas remain competitive in the marketplace for jobs. State Farm is finishing construction of a $1.5 billion, 2 million square-foot office next to the light rail station in the northern suburb of Richardson. Why? Because it gives their employees more reliable choices to get to the office. Anyone know what the annual property taxes are on $1.5 billion?

The Charlotte region’s worst congestion begins about 15 miles from the center city, where the number of choices in the mobility network decreases dramatically. Providing choices means we attack our problem with multiple solutions. Transit, managed lanes, a better-connected, local street network, and more pedestrian- and transit-friendly compact development have to be a part of the solution.

So long as we keep providing a monoculture of answers to the wrong questions, we will continue to see congestion increase. It’s time we start to ask the right questions about building a world-class network, and make real investments into a future that will pay dividends, rather than simply dumping money into answers from the last century.

Craig Lewis is a Principal in the Charlotte office of Stantec’s Urban Places Group where he works with public and private clients across the country to create a more urban, walkable, and prosperous future.