Guest Opinion: Roads are a solution, not the problem

Published 9:13 am Thursday, January 26, 2023

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By John Hood

While Charlotte is known as the Queen City, the behavior of its leaders sometimes invites comparison to a different monarch: Hans Christian Anderson’s newly “clothed” emperor. Earlier this month, the tale was restaged with House Speaker Tim Moore in the role of the plain-spoken youth.

Appearing at a Charlotte Business Alliance forum alongside Senate leader Phil Berger, Moore answered a reporter’s question about the city’s $13.5 billion proposal for new rail lines, bus service and other transportation projects. To help finance it, Charlotte leaders want to raise the sales tax again. They need the General Assembly to authorize putting the tax hike to a referendum.

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For the North Carolina House to go along, Moore explained, such a plan “needs to be focused on road capacity.” In its current form, about 80% of the $13.5 billion would be spent on transit.

“I think we really need to be looking at road construction,” the speaker explained. “If you get out and you drive anywhere and 95% of people are driving a car, they are not riding a bike. They are not riding a bus. I think bus ridership after COVID is at abysmally low levels.”

He’s right about that — and it’s not just in the Charlotte region. Nationwide, transit ridership has recovered a bit from its 2020 trough but remains a third lower than it was before the onset of COVID-19. Raleigh’s system roughly matches the national experience while Charlotte’s system is down an astounding 50% from pre-pandemic levels. For the Queen City’s buses, in particular, the decline began even earlier than that: ridership is 75% lower than its peak in 2013. In Winston-Salem, Greensboro, Durham, and other cities, bus ridership has fared better but still makes up a tiny share of daily commutes.

I’ve long favored the provision of bus service as a form of public assistance, and as an alternative along a few highly congested corridors. I do not, however, believe the share of “choice” riders — those North Carolinians who could commute by passenger vehicle but elect not to do so — will ever be significant enough to affect traffic congestion, air quality or other often-stated policy goals.

Moore appears to agree. Not surprisingly, the speaker drew critical comments from local politicians and transit boosters. One common refrain was to ridicule Moore’s emphasis on road capacity by arguing that new roads or lanes won’t help because of “induced demand” — the notion that new capacity serves only to induce more people to drive, leaving the corridor just as congested as before.

This is a serious, albeit common, misinterpretation of what really happens when growing communities build (or fail to build) new road capacity. As transportation expert Robert Poole pointed out in a Reason Foundation analysis, induced-demand studies usually examine only what happens to travel along newly constructed or expanded highways, rather than looking more comprehensively at traffic across the broader network. “Analytically, they treat parallel arterials and all other roadways in the metro area as a large blob,” Poole wrote.

Actually, we want to redirect daily commutes from other roads and streets to interstate-quality highways. That makes the system safer and more efficient. Moreover, while fast-growing places are going to experience more traffic, the best available evidence suggests that it is precisely where more and better roads are built that traffic congestion is less egregious.

It isn’t just in Charlotte where regional planners, politicians and activists seek big increases in transit expenditures. In the Triangle, they want to spend $3.2 billion on a commuter-rail line that would stretch 43 miles from Durham through Wake County to Clayton, in Johnston County. Its per-mile cost is lower than the Charlotte plan, primarily because it makes use of existing tracks, but is still hard to justify.

What’s more realistic? Allowing people to live closer to where they work, and to work from home more often. Oh, and adding highway capacity more quickly. Don’t be fooled by transit dreams woven of gossamer threads.

John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member. His latest books, Mountain Folk and Forest Folk, combine epic fantasy with early American history (