The coming flood of traffic

“The best analogy … is a flood. Traffic is like water, only a little more unpredictable.”

— Transportation-planning consultant Don Bryson

In the end, whether Interstate 26 has six lanes or eight may not matter. No amount of road-widening or road-building is going to save Asheville from the coming deluge of traffic, according to a new, long-range regional traffic model commissioned by the state Department of Transportation.

Twenty-five years from now, traffic on our freeways and arterial roads will be so congested, we’ll spend half our driving time going 15 mph or less (whereas we now spend three-quarters of our time driving faster than 30 mph). Our daily trips to work, school or the store will take, on average, twice as long as they do now. And they’ll be far less reliable, since bus arrivals and commute times will fluctuate at the mercy of continual traffic jams, and some freeway exits will clog up so badly that no one can get on or off.

All that will happen “if we keep going the way we are” and Western North Carolina’s current population-growth and suburban-development trends continue, transportation-planning consultant Don Bryson told a well-attended public meeting at the Asheville Public Works Building on Dec. 2. The meeting was sponsored by the French Broad River Metropolitan Planning Organization, an advisory body made up of representatives of local governments, to gather public input en route to drawing up a federally mandated long-range transportation plan for Buncombe and surrounding counties through the year 2030.

“It’s a very different model from the one DOT usually puts together,” Bryson explained to Xpress in a post-meeting interview. “We went ahead and did things a little differently, even though they choked a little bit when they saw the forecasts on the [I-26] Connector.”

Rather than look at the design of specific projects piecemeal or confine traffic analyses to specific roads or communities, the comprehensive model developed by Bryson’s Raleigh-based firm, Martin/Alexiou/Bryson, considers the bigger picture. It includes commuter traffic throughout the entire WNC region — counting daily trips between Buncombe and surrounding counties, for example, rather than just within the county — and incorporates the latest census-based trends in the growth of population and vehicle miles traveled per household.

The new model also acknowledges that drivers faced with clogged freeways are likely to seek alternate routes.

“I was really surprised at the amount of congestion on the freeways” predicted by the model, Bryson told the audience. “It’s not typical of what we’re seeing [elsewhere]. … Most places we’ve been looking at have outer loops or outer-outer loops … and they have freeways that aren’t interstates. They have urban freeways that carry a lot of their local traffic; we have nothing like that here. … And that’s really causing the freeways to be a much bigger problem here than in most areas.”

The best analogy, said Bryson, is a flood. “Traffic is like water, only a little more unpredictable. … Here, just like with the rivers, everything drains down into these major freeway corridors. And on top of that, just like with the rivers, you have traffic coming from outside your area: I-26, I-40.” That traffic, he noted, will be on those freeways regardless of how congested they may get. But “when the channel gets full, it spills over. … Where the freeway’s really going to start to break down is around the interchanges.”

The overflow around the exits will be due to local and regional peak-hour commuter traffic, not to through traffic on the now-completed I-26, he predicted.

“There’s not a lot of Detroit-to-Myrtle Beach” traffic in these gridlock scenarios, Bryson told Xpress, because those travelers will probably schedule their trips to avoid coming through here at rush hour — and won’t generally use our interstate exits unless they need gas.

No easy solution

As for solutions to the coming crisis, “There is no prescription [or] silver bullet,” Bryson told his listeners. Instead, it will require a diversity of tactics: improving bus service and adding bike lanes and sidewalks, using camera monitoring and traffic-light control to manage congestion, and even more controversial strategies such as “congestion pricing” (creating toll roads or charging drivers to take their cars downtown). That last approach is “the only [one] that can have any real impact on congestion,” Bryson told Xpress.

To some extent, the problem will be self-limiting. In other cities studied, for example, people without children (such as students and retirees) tended to be less dependent on cars and often gravitated toward nonsuburban housing near rail stations or within walkable communities. Then again, some of the worst trouble spots mapped by Bryson’s model are already slated for improvement by the DOT. And ultimately, if the traffic gets too bad, people just might stop moving here.

One thing’s for certain: Business as usual won’t forestall the flood. “We can’t provide enough capacity” merely by expanding our roads or building new ones, Bryson warned emphatically.

The DOT, however, is waking up to the new reality, according to both Bryson and MPO coordinator Dan Baechtold.

“In a statewide context, there are some shifts in thinking about how we’re going to fund transportation over the next 25 or 30 years,” Baechtold said at the meeting. According to the state’s plans and studies, he noted, “We need to shift the mode of highway expansion more into modernization and maintenance and preservation. Expansion is still a part of it, but this is a major shift. … The bottom line is that they’ve identified $84 billion in transportation needs but [only] $55 billion in revenue statewide.”

That means we’ll probably have to pass new local taxes to fund some of these needs, said Bryson, noting that when things get bad enough, even a politically conservative citizenry like Charlotte’s will vote to pay for transportation improvements.

Throughout the meeting, members of the public peppered Bryson and Baechtold with questions. Most of them concerned the controversial I-26 Connector, revealing a deep frustration with the DOT’s long-standing just-add-pavement philosophy. Afterward, the audience filled easel pads stationed around the room with ideas for the MPO to consider as it prepares to come back to the public next March with suggested transportation strategies. In June, the MPO will draft a plan and solicit further public input, according to Baechtold. The organization must submit a final long-range plan to the state by Oct. 1.

For more information, visit the MPO’s Web site (www.frenchbroadrivermpo.org).

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