So why keep doing it?
What if we thought of traffic in terms of, say, 2/3 generations from now?
What if we valued quality of life over an endless chain of vehicles with 2,3, sometimes 4 per household?
We’d act differently. That’s what if. https://t.co/LQZPDNggAx
— Joyce Elliott (@xjelliott) August 29, 2019
Another day brings more evidence of the lack of wisdom in the Arkansas penchant for freeway building, particularly devastating concrete gulches in the heart of the state’s biggest city.
First, here’s the Texas Observer, highlighted in a Tweet by Sen. Joyce Elliott. It reports that freeway building in that state to ease congestion has actually caused MORE congestion and displaced communities. Do tell. That’s the story in Little Rock, too, where a billion-dollar project to widen the community-ruining Interstate 30 gulch in Little Rock doesn’t include the certain cost of the pressure the project will produce on connecting roads.
As in most of Texas’ sprawling cities, it seems like Houston’s only solution to reduce traffic and speed up commutes is to tack on more lanes to existing highways. The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) estimates that over the next decade, almost $20 billion will be spent on highway improvement projects along the state’s most congested roads. Today, there are at least three multimillion-dollar highway projects underway across Texas—I-45 in Houston, the I-345 bridge in Dallas, and I-35 in Austin.
No matter how fast the state builds highways, they keep filling up. An expansion of Interstate-10, also known locally as the Katy Freeway because it connects the suburb to downtown Houston, was completed in 2011 with a $2.8 billion price tag. Its 23 lanes were supposed to save commuters from being stuck in gridlock during rush hour. By 2014, commutes were even worse than before the expansion. The phenomenon is called induced demand. The new, open stretches of freeway incentivized more drivers to get on the road than ever before. Year after year, commuters always seem to be stuck in traffic. And as massive concrete overpasses rise and fill up, suburban drivers aren’t the only ones suffering the consequences.
There’s more in Texas, also reflected in the environmental lawsuit challenging the I-30 project: Air pollution, negative impact on minority neighborhoods, alternatives to freeways.
“A lot of people aren’t really interested in thinking 25 years into the future about transportation policy,” says Tina Geiselbrecht, a research scientist at Texas A&M’s Transportation Institute. Before a highway is ever built, it requires decades of planning and coordination between federal, state, regional, and city agencies. Those plans take into account expected population and economic growth to understand where the jobs are and which direction commuters will go—as well as federally required environmental impact reviews.
This kind of thinking isn’t readily apparent in Arkansas, needless to say.
But wait, there’s more. The billion-dollar I-30 gulch. supposedly meant to reduce congestion, probably isn’t needed to begin with. Any casual observer of the freeway knows this intuitively. Traffic jams on the road occur for a relatively few minutes at rush hours on weekdays. And they are nothing compared to REAL traffic congestion. We are spending billions to hurry people to flight suburbs a few minutes faster at the worst of times.
Check this report from Reason Foundation on urban traffic congestion. An annual study shows Arkansas ranks low on the amount of time drivers spend in traffic congestion — 13th among the states in time spent in peak congestion. Lots of data to chew on in this report, including the finding that Arkansas ranks 11th in the percentage of rural interstate miles in poor condition. That’s, of course, because interstate trucks pound those roads to rubble without paying their share of the cost of destruction. Urban interstates are also in poor shape.
In short, you might conclude from this libertarian-leaning outfit that we don’t need wider freeways, but we probably need to maintain what we have in better fashion. And, as Elliott says, we could use some more long-range thinking. I can’t help but remember when Scott Bennett, the state highway director and recipient of a recent major pay increase, laughed derisively at the notion that transportation changes — think autonomous cars and trucks; higher density cities; more foot and bike and mass transit alternatives — could alter how we think about building freeways. Here in Arkansas, it’s forever 1950.
A stray thought: I’d like to see Bennett propose a 12-lane freeway through the heart of downtown Bentonville. Why not? That way people could work at Walmart HQ or Crystal Bridges and speed home to Gravette or Cave Springs quicker.