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Dream the Impossible Dream: 

Getting to work on time

The best way to grasp the reality of Charlotte's traffic situation is to think in terms of Chief Traffic Engineer Bill Diller's dead body. Diller, a middle-aged guy who isn't exactly at death's door, is frank about the fact that by the time the city and the state get around to improving many of the 30 most congested locations in Charlotte, he probably will be. That is, if they ever improve them, which, in most cases, they have no plans to do. Not now. Not ever. And nobody's talking about it.

The locations I'm referring to can be found on a high congestion list that rarely leaves the bounds of city hall. The top 30 hot spots on the list include legendary intersections like Fairview and Providence Roads, the intersection of Randolph and Sharon Amity, and the intersection of Monroe and Wendover Roads and just about any place you can think of where traffic backs up for miles. These high-congestion spots form a virtual barrier between the suburbs, where most of the population of this county lives, and the place city and county leaders are trying to concentrate most of them -- uptown. And again, nobody's talking about it.

Traffic engineers say that the city and state have no plans to do anything about 14 of the worst intersections, and another 10 may be addressed decades from now -- or maybe not. The majority aren't even listed on the city's $2 billion capital improvement wish list of needed road projects, most of which won't get funded in the next two decades either, but are at least on the city's radar.

With a few exceptions, what the city's most congested locations have in common is that they would cost a lot of money to improve, millions if not tens of millions more than the city's annual budget for roadwork can handle. And it's not like you can just add lanes to Fairview and Providence where the two roads intersect and make a difference. You'd probably have to widen the intersection in at least three directions for at least half a mile. If the Freedom Drive widening project is any example, that could cost over $50 million. And even then, you'd probably have to spend more money further down Providence, where the traffic from the improved intersection would again back up.

It would also mean condemning a lot of right-of-way land along the roads, which could be expensive and would make people mad. Worse yet, like Providence and Monroe roads, many of the roads on the high congestion list are state roads, which shouldn't even technically be our responsibility, but are, since the state is strapped for road funds.

The city has skipped over the most congested areas to spend its road budget money on less congested spots where a $500,000 traffic improvement can make a significant difference. More bang for the buck, it's called.

That's not to say that the city, county and state couldn't make a significant difference if they had three billion dollars or so lying around. That would be enough to cover most of the county's major road needs for the next two decades and make a difference for drivers. Seem like a lot? Not when you consider that $3 billion is three-fifths of just the cost overrun on our mass transit project -- which includes light rail and buses, but not roads. In 1998, when our elected officials sold the project to the public, it was supposed to cost $1 billion. Now it costs $6 billion.

Of course, many of these are the same elected officials who have long records of supporting the rezonings that made the suburbs what they are today. Now that the car-dependent suburban living they created is no longer in vogue, their attitude is that suburban drivers are the root of our problems and they can either rot in traffic or move closer to uptown -- if they can afford it. They believe that if we stop combating congestion on a large scale, it will force people to live near downtown and use mass transit.

The problem with this is that many high-congestion spots we have no intention of addressing are intersections that hundreds of thousands of people must pass through every day to get to work. Even if every seat on every bus and light rail car were filled every day, it wouldn't make a dent in the traffic at these intersections. Since light rail will never run down Providence Road or anywhere near these intersections, many of these drivers won't have the option to use it, even if they wanted to.

As we grow, we'll always have traffic, and congestion will continue to get worse. But if drivers ever got a look at what just a third of the $5 billion cost increase in mass transit over the last five years could buy, they'd rear-end someone.

Contact Tara Servatius at tara.servatius@cln.com.

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