Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Highways - loosening our collective belts

The first vehicles drive down the final leg of I-485, June 5. Photo: Nancy Pierce
Even as the national discussion turns toward whether we are overbuilding highways, based on inflated state traffic numbers, in North Carolina those questions are rarely heard. Last month the state's largest city, Charlotte, population 800,000, where I live and work, saw the June 5 opening of the final leg of its loop highway.  It's called Interstate 485 but it doesn't touch another state, or even another county.

When the road was first discussed in the 1960s, the idea was to open more land for development, because in these parts, the growth-is-good mindset has not had much nuance to it. While the local news media saw headlines such as Last I-485 segment will be boon to locals, we at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, where I work and direct the PlanCharlotte.org website, decided to look deeper.

We've published some interactive maps that show just how much of the county's development has been shaped by the outerbelt highway here. A couple of images are reproduced below but find the interactive and zoomable versions at this link.


 In coming weeks we'll map population growth and traffic counts at the interchanges.

Obviously this is a fast-growing metro area, and growth was going to arrive regardless of where we put our freeways. The questions were: Where was the growth going to go? Can the highway capacity keep up with the demand created by the new development?

 The answer to the first question is now obvious. The growth flooded to the highway, leapfrogging closer in areas that even today lack for investment.  Would even more growth have leapfrogged into adjacent counties without I-485, or would the lack of the highway access have kept the development closer to the core? Who could tell?

The answer to the latter question remains unclear, although I certainly have my doubts. Even before the final link of the loop opened June 5, last December the first leg of the highway, which opened in the 1990s, was expanded from two to three lanes each direction, at a cost of $83 million.

It's still clogged.

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