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The coming gridlock nightmare

Mayor Pat McCrory and city leaders don't want you to read this column. If you keep reading, you may figure out that Charlotte is about to get walloped with traffic gridlock, and that they have no plan to deal with it.

After UNC-Charlotte professor and expert in transportation issues David Hartgen published his latest statewide study a few weeks ago, warning that Charlotte is the least prepared region in the state in planning for future congestion, they went into damage control mode.

They don't want you to know that as the region's population increases 60 to 90 percent over the next 25 years, vehicle miles traveled will nearly double and total regional commuting time will increase by 102 percent. Essentially, Hartgen says, our traffic situation will mirror current day Chicago.

Meanwhile, according to our current plans, 57 percent of our transit dollars will be spent on mass transit service that focuses on less than three percent of travel and does almost nothing to reduce congestion and the air pollution idling cars and trucks cause.

It's simply stunning that our long-range transportation plan contains little discussion of the impacts the near-doubling of employment and population on traffic. While congestion reduction is mentioned in our transportation plans, it is unfathomable that it is not among the goals of the region's highway and long range plans, which instead strive to "provide mobility choices."

Instead of addressing the congestion time bomb Hartgen describes, city leaders turned on the messenger. Hartgen doesn't appreciate that regional leaders are trying to use mass transit as part of an ingenious plan to concentrate growth in five corridors, they whined on the mayor's show on WBT last week. They probably figure you haven't read Hartgen's study or their own regional planning documents, which show a tidal wave of residential and employment growth just over our county's borders that is beyond the control of their growth policies.

The city's transportation action plan has a single bizarre mission: to make Charlotte "the premier city in the country for integrating transportation and land use choices." It laughably calls for reducing vehicle miles traveled per capita as a key strategy for relieving congestion, as if the city can somehow control the growth and travel patterns of surrounding counties whose residents will commute to Charlotte.

Because he is not as enlightened as they are, Hartgen just can't get it through his thick skull that you can't combat congestion by widening roads, they repeat over and over.

It's a lie on a lot of levels. Again, they are counting on you not reading Hartgen's report, which is available at www.johnlocke.org/site-docs/traffic/charlotte.html. Hartgen isn't proposing the wholescale widening of roads they describe, but targeted, coordinated widening and upgrades for specific sections of freeway, arterials, bottlenecks and intersections that together create the worst traffic jams in the region.

It's ironic that city leaders claim we can't "fix" congestion when the city's own transportation action plan shows that if the city spent $4.2 billion on 247 road projects likely to reduce congestion over the next 25 years, we could save commuters 52,565 hours of delay. That's only about a third of the 149,745 hours of daily delay the area would need to save to hold congestion near its current levels. Hartgen's study merely builds on the city's own traffic plans by proposing we spend an additional $4 billion to abate two-thirds of the coming congestion. What flips city leaders out is that Hartgen essentially proposes to take that money from light rail. (Hartgen supports a beefed-up bus system.)

Wherever the money comes from, our so-called leaders desperately need to acknowledge the coming congestion crunch and debate what to do about it. This community must make a choice between three futures -- one with massive gridlock on our roads, increasing pollution and light rail that serves a tiny fraction of commuters, one in which even higher taxes support significant congestion reduction and light rail, or one in which we abandon light rail and fully attack congestion reduction. By doing nothing, we are choosing option No. 1.

That's fine, as long as we understand the implications of that choice; as long as we accept the crushing impact gridlock will have on local businesses' ability to truck goods in and out of here. If we want to surrender our growing warehousing sector to Atlanta, which makes no secret about taking us on in warehousing, be my guest. If trucks can easily move in and out of Atlanta, where do you think goods will be staged and stored?

Atlanta recently reconfigured its transportation funding system to prioritize congestion reduction. Billions of dollars in privately funded road projects are in the works there, including truck-only lanes to segregate slower moving trucks from traffic, bus lanes, toll express lanes for drivers willing to pay to escape congestion and the widening of one section of I-75 to 23 lanes.

And all this is being planned while naysayers like our mayor whine that something like that just isn't possible here.

See Tara Servatius live at CL's Political Party -- April 4, 7 p.m. at the Neighborhood Theatre in NoDa (511 E. 36th St., 704-358-9298).

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