Monday, March 28, 2011

Highway tales from the crypt

It was like a quick, surprise trip to the mindset of the 1980s. Or maybe like one of those horror movies when something you thought was dead turns out to be twitching in the grave, still alive.

I dropped in on a group of regional elected officials and other civic-leader types who'd gathered Monday afternoon to talk about "next steps" for the worthy-but-unsexy goal of regional transportation planning, with the Centralina Council of Governments moderating a series of conversations by a study group.

It's one of those under-the-radar issues, boring but important if you think a metro region should act like, well, a metro region and not a bunch of unrelated local governments, especially when it's dealing with something as important – and as costly to the taxpayers – as transportation. As I've mentioned previously (some might even say ad nauseam), the Charlotte metro region has possibly the most fragmented transportation planning of any metro area in the country. Gaston County isn't in the same transportation planning group as Charlotte. Cabarrus County isn't either. Ditto York County, S.C., and ditto the whole Lake Norman area.

It was as the group was talking about the need to articulate a vision for the whole region, that the zombie idea arose from the crypt. Gaston County commissioner Joe Carpenter started talking about how it felt like, as Yogi Berra used to say, "deja vu all over again." He recalled the era from 1988 to 1992, when a regional coalition, the Carolinas Transportation Compact, pushed for – if you said mass transit, or farmland preservation you lose – for an outer-outerbelt highway around Charlotte.

Carpenter then unfurled a large map of the route of this mythical highway, long lusted after by suburban land developers.

Because why have only one outerbelt if you can have two? Haven't we all seen how well Charlotte's first outerbelt has relieved congestion, led to smoothly flowing traffic, trimmed the region's carbon footprint, helped create walkable neighborhoods and made transit easier to implement? Imagine the wonders if we could spread our Pineville- and Ballantyne-style development all over the region's farmland?

Then-state Sen. Jerry Blackmon had conceived of the idea of a 13-county outer-outerbelt, 30 to 50 miles from Charlotte, in the mid-1980s. Planning continued throughout the 1980s, out of the public eye although land speculators such as Robert Pittenger, later a state senator, bought land along its route. In 1993 its cost was estimated at $2 billion.

Although the Carolinas Transportation Compact backed it, there was a Carolinas Urban Coalition of nearby cities which opposed it, foreseeing that the sprawl it would engender would empty their struggling downtowns. "I find the idea inconceivable," said then-Charlotte City Council member Lynn Wheeler. "You could take gasoline and pour it on the city of Charlotte and the other cities and light a match. It would have the same effect."

The newly elected Gov. Jim Hunt was not a fan. "The outer-outerloop strikes me as just being a little farfetched," he said in early 1993. "I'd be very concerned about spending money on that." And after that, Observer articles on the outer-outerbelt dwindled. And in the intervening two decades thinking about urban transportation has changed dramatically. Highways have been shown not to relieve congestion, as hoped, but to create it. Willy-nilly suburban growth has been shown to be, in many cases, a net loss for local government revenues rather than the hoped-for boost.

As Carpenter (who's also a big backer of the dubious Garden Parkway through rural southern Gaston County) spoke, I noticed that the meeting's chair, Dennis Rash – a former N.C. transportation board member and a one-time key lieutenant to ex-Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl Jr. – wasn't saying much. I asked him later about the outer-outerbelt idea. Is that what we are to see from a group looking for regional transportation planning? He noted, drily, that the old outer-outerbelt idea had been conceived during a time when the federal government was paying for 90 percent of the cost of highway projects. Those days are gone, probably for good.

And that should be the fate, as well, of yet another outerbelt highway through the Piedmont around Charlotte. Please, no more rising from the crypt for this one.


Anonymous said...

Are roads in Charlotte are a disgrace. Richmond and Louisville have better roads than Charlotte. For the size of this city our "so called" political leaders have dropped the ball big time!

Anonymous said...

Our grammar is a disgrace also as indicated in the previous post. It's Our, not "Are".

Anonymous said...

Our grammer and our roads are a disgrace.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps if 485 had been designed properly to begin with it would have more smoothly flowing traffic and less congestion, leading to a smaller carbon footprint. What is the excuse for the horrendous traffic flow on Independence and South Boulevard? Large portions of both of them are in urban areas, with bus and light rail transportation (at least along South Boulevard) available. Why do they remain such a mess?

Anonymous said...

If you think Charlotte's traffic is bad, you have no clue. But eventually it will get much, much worse.

You chose to live where you do, now deal with it.

Name a city where mass transit has solved traffic problems!

Anonymous said...

Say what you want about whether I-485 has helped or hurt the Charlotte region, but its interminably slow construction pace has rendered it obsolete before it is even completed.

Let's see....even with the Governor accellerating the last section of I-485, it will have taken approximately 25 years to build a 67-mile beltway around Charlotte at an average radius of 10 miles from Center City. The 30-to-50 mile road would have a circumference of 189 to 314 miles (2*Pi*radius -- all of y'all remember basic geometry, right?). At the present I-485 construction rate that would only take 71 to 118 years to construct.

Just for comparison, in the same 25 years it will have taken NCDOT to build I-485 once, Georgia DOT built 2.5 I-285's around Atlanta (built once in the late 1960's, major widening in the 1980's, and then a second major widening in the 1990's).

Delores Holbrook Dixon said...

Mary, I'm reminded of Spring 1973, we first moved to the beautiful city of Charlotte...trees, flowers..and not long after, Pat Hall planning Carowinds and the monorail. Some few thought the monorail (I included)a great idea for mass transit...saving the farms, yet great for developing transit around the areas. Too bad, we had the naysayers then...imagine how wonderful that would be now!
-- Delores Holbrook Dixon

Anonymous said...

"Name a city where mass transit has solved traffic problems"

"Solved" is subjective, but I submit:
Bogota, Columbia.

I also submit Boston, MA from 1980's-2000's, when driving/parking was such a catastrophe that the only way Boston remained a viable American city for commerce and living was by the T.

Anonymous said...

How much is this moderating group and study group and.....cosing the taxpayers and to what end?

Alex said...

"Name a city where mass transit has solved traffic problems!"

Mass transit takes hundreds of thousands of commuters off of roads in Chicago, New York, Boston, Washington, San Francisco, and Philadelphia, as well as dozens of cities around the world.

I hope you find someone simple-minded enough to think that mass transit is supposed be the panacea to congestion instead of one tool in the toolbox. If you think you're ready, we can get into the idea that congestion is an unavoidable byproduct of economic activity, and transit a means of providing individuals a way out of congestion.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like old groups with old ideas. Let's get some innovators to the table and these folks away from the table.

Anonymous said...

I remember Senator Blackmon as being a very intelligent and rational person. Hopefully we will be able to figure out how to alleviate this maddening traffic. When are they going to bring the light rail up to UNCC area?