RALEIGH – Future road congestion could threaten North Carolina’s economy, but Asheville is better prepared for congestion than most other N.C. cities. That’s according to a new Policy Report from the John Locke Foundation and Reason Foundation.
The report gives Asheville an A- grade for its congestion reduction plan. Of the state’s 17 metropolitan regions, only Goldsboro and Jacksonville matched that grade. In contrast, Charlotte earned a D and Raleigh a C.
“From our analysis, it would appear that projects identified in the Asheville region’s transportation improvement program (TIP) and long-range transportation plan (LRP), if implemented, would contribute substantially to reduced regional congestion,” said study author David Hartgen, Professor of Transportation Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “That’s if, of course, they are in the right locations and contain the right project mix.”
Congestion in North Carolina will more than double over the next 25 years. “Traffic congestion in Asheville will more than double,” Hartgen said. “Charlotte drivers will face the same type of traffic delays Chicago drivers face now. Raleigh’s delay will nearly double, to present-day Minneapolis levels. Even smaller cities like Rocky Mount will see a significant increase in traffic delays.”
State and local planners are not targeting enough transportation dollars toward reducing those delays, said Hartgen, a JLF adjunct policy analyst. “That increased congestion threatens the state’s economic future,” he said. “Yet many regions have ignored the problem and propose spending limited transportation funds on ineffective projects that will not likely affect congestion.”
The new study builds on a 2006 report Hartgen prepared for the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization founded in 1968 that advances a free society by developing, applying, and promoting libertarian principles, including individual liberty, free markets, and the rule of law.
The Reason report showed traffic delays would increase by 65 percent across the United States by 2030. North Carolina needs to spend $12.4 billion to clear congested urban roads and prepare for traffic growth in the next 25 years, according to that report.
For his new report, Hartgen reviewed more than 1,300 specific transportation projects planned for each North Carolina region’s transportation plan. Hartgen evaluated each project based on its likely impact on congestion relief, then compared that impact to the congestion growth forecast for the region.
Some regions are devoting too little money to the congestion problem, Hartgen said. The state’s largest regions are spending significant chunks of transportation funding on transit instead.
“In the Charlotte region, 43 percent of available dollars are proposed for highway projects, and the road improvements proposed would alleviate only one-third of the predicted increase in congestion,” he said. “Raleigh and Durham are allocating 73 percent and 49 percent, respectively, of their dollars to effective projects. Asheville’s plan proposes to spend $1.41 billion over 25 years, with about 97 percent for roads. That leaves 3 percent for transit, compared with a 1 percent commuting share.”
Programs in other communities were judged more effective. Those plans often had enough savings to relieve congestion, if targeted at the right projects.
North Carolina does not need new funding to address the congestion problem, Hartgen said. “The report recommends using existing planned funds for congestion relief,” he said. “In some cities, ‘balance’ in transportation funding needs to be redefined. Instead of saying that transit programs should get 20-50 percent of funds, modes of transportation should get funds in proportion to their demand.”
Hartgen’s report offers nearly 20 recommendations for the state and nine recommendations for the Asheville region. Local recommendations include: developing a bottleneck removal plan; moving funding to intersection and ramp projects, along with other projects that relieve congestion; implementing a flexible work hour program and formal carpooling plan; dropping reliance on transit as a congestion reliever; raising the importance of congestion relief; and putting teeth in the Congestion Management Plan.
The statewide proposals include: changing the highway distribution formulas to account for congestion; appointing “congestion tsars” and establishing congestion reduction programs for each region; using innovative highway and intersection designs; increasing the weight placed on congestion in selecting projects; implementing flex-time, ridesharing, and work-at-home programs; removing bottlenecks; improving intersection turns and signal systems; expanding incident management programs; using tolls and public-private partnerships; and planning land use and transportation capacity jointly.
The state cannot afford to ignore growing congestion problems, Hartgen said. “North Carolina is not generally recognized as one of the most congested states, but it is,” he said. “My recent national assessment ranked North Carolina 48th among the 50 states in urban interstate congestion.”
“Pulled by competing priorities, many communities appear to be focusing largely on other objectives and are de-emphasizing the congestion problem,” Hartgen added. “Refocusing efforts on relieving congestion could have a major economic impact by saving travel time. The report estimates the value of travel time saved at about $855 million annually.”
David Hartgen’s Policy Report, “Traffic Congestion in North Carolina: Status, Prospects, and Solutions,” is available at the JLF web site. For more information, please contact Hartgen at (704) 687-5917 or [email protected]. To arrange an interview, contact Mitch Kokai at (919) 306-8736 or [email protected].