This study carefully reviews the growth of North Carolina’s 1551 Census tracts during the 1990s compared with the locations of major road improvements. Tract data on changes in population, demographics, prior density, and location are merged with detailed data on 312 major road projects completed during the 1990s, and the relationships between road investments and growth are determined for each of the 12 commuting regions. The study finds that population growth in North Carolina is complex, occurring throughout the State and throughout each region. Local growth patterns depend heavily on prior density: growth goes where there is room for it, filling in the urban tracts and lower-density edge-of-city tracts. Local zoning limits on population within tracts thus push additional growth to the region’s edges. About 1/2 of the State’s population growth went into tracts that had no major road improvements during the 1990s. Nearness to the Interstate system or to city centers was not a factor in most regions. Recent major road improvements, primarily urban and rural widenings, had a minor effect on growth, increasing growth by 50-550 persons per decade, per mile of investment, about 2-14 percentage points above the baseline growth. However, the relationships varied widely by region and were weak, generally explaining 10-25 percent of the variation in growth. This indicates that factors other than density or road investment (e.g., schools, taxes, sewer and water, taxes, community receptiveness) influence the location of growth significantly. The study concludes that road projects are blunt and inefficient instruments for either spurring or slowing growth, so local governments should accept responsibility for growth policies.
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