Press Release

Charlotte earns D for congestion relief

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RALEIGH – Charlotte deserves just a D grade for its limited efforts to reduce traffic congestion, according to a new Policy Report from the John Locke Foundation and Reason Foundation. That D ranks the Queen City below every other metropolitan region in the state.

Concord gets a B- and Gastonia earns a C in the report. Concord ranks 11th out of the state’s 17 metropolitan regions, while Gastonia ranks 13th. In contrast to Charlotte-area cities, Asheville, Goldsboro, and Jacksonville topped the list with A- grades.

“Charlotte has a long-range plan and philosophy that is strangely disconnected from the needs of the region,” said study author David Hartgen, Professor of Transportation Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “As citizens struggle to commute in increasing congestion, the plan’s focus is not on congestion relief – arguably the No. 1 transportation issue in the region – but on ‘balance’ and ‘modal choices’ that all agree
will have no effect on congestion.

“This situation will evolve in one of two ways,” he added. “Either the region will continue down its current path toward more congestion and less competitiveness while other regions prosper, or it will reverse course and undertake actions to get ahead of the problem. While there is some evidence that the region has at least recognized the seriousness of its predicament, recognition has not yet been reflected in actions. More needs to be done to bring this issue to the fore and to confront it.”

The Concord region’s plans show potential for actions that could reduce congestion, but they need more evaluation and a review of available funds, Hartgen said. Gastonia’s plan is “descriptive” and “well organized,” but it relies heavily on unlikely revenue assumptions and places great weight on one project’s success.

Congestion in North Carolina will more than double over the next 25 years, Hartgen said. Congestion in Concord and Gastonia will more than double. “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, compared with 57 percent for transit,” he said. “But the road improvements proposed would alleviate only one-third of the predicted increase in congestion. We are spending 57 percent of the money on 2 percent of the commuters. Raleigh and Durham are allocating 73 percent and 49 percent, respectively, of their dollars to effective projects.”

Programs in other communities were judged more effective. Those plans often had enough savings to relieve congestion, if targeted at the right projects. “Concord has 97 percent of its funds targeted at road needs, and Gastonia has 91 percent targeted there,” Hartgen said. “By contrast, the transit commuting shares in these regions are less than one-half of one percent.”

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 more targeted recommendations for the Charlotte, Concord, and Gastonia regions. Charlotte recommendations include: immediately rethinking current transportation plans, including the role of transit; expanding the role of additional road capacity; identifying and acting upon major current bottlenecks; moving up projects that reduce congestion; and reassessing the need for the Monroe Bypass and Garden Parkway.

Concord recommendations include: reviewing revenue and expenditure recommendations; quantifying the impact of current plans on congestion; and dealing with bottlenecks. Gastonia recommendations include: reviewing revenue assumptions; placing less emphasis on the Garden Parkway; and revisiting the possibility of widening of Interstate 85.

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].

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