Charlotte’s roads are crowded. Is the solution more roads or fewer drivers?

CHARLOTTE — Whether on a highway or cruising across SouthPark, if you’ve driven around the Queen City then you’ve likely encountered a traffic gridlock.

North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore called out Charlotte’s traffic issues in February, saying, “We don’t want to be Atlanta.”

After an event with the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance, he went on to criticize low ridership in Atlanta’s MARTA system, which has had a slow pandemic recovery. Moore’s prescription for Charlotte to avoid the same highway congestion woes: “I think it has to be significantly weighted towards roads.”

The City of Charlotte meanwhile has been working with the Metropolitan Transit Commission on its own massive transportation plan aimed at efficiently moving the millions who live, work and travel through the county every day.

The MTC adopted the 2030 Transit Corridor System Plan in 2006, promising the Blue Line, a Gold Line from I-85 to a transit center in east Charlotte, a Red Line commuter rail from Iredell County and a Silver Line from Union County to Gaston County, with a stop at Charlotte Douglas Airport. Now, six years short of 2030, Charlotte has the Blue Line and two phases of the Gold Line. Charlotte Councilmember Ed Driggs, the head of the Transportation, Planning and Development Committee, expects it will take at least another 20 years before the rest of the projects are complete.

“We’ve identified a long list of projects in all those categories for Charlotte that would be kind of the building blocks of a plan, but we haven’t yet prioritized exactly which ones come first,” he said.

One of the hold-ups is funding. Charlotte’s plan is a one-percent sales tax increase for Mecklenburg County, but passing that requires legislative approval and a ballot initiative.

Lawmakers want more roads, less rail

Moore has signaled the Republican-controlled legislature isn’t interested in taking up Mecklenburg County’s plan unless they believe it’s a fiscally responsible use of sales tax money. To Moore, that means investing those transportation dollars into the way most people get around Charlotte.

“The most pressing issue to look at right now is the way 95 percent of people get to and from work or whatever and that is in a car,” he said. “I don’t think it has to be one or the other but I think it has to be significantly weighted towards roads.”

Driggs said the initial MTC plan sent to legislature had about 80 percent of its funding going to rail projects.

“We heard back pretty strongly from them no that’s not the right way to do it,” he said. “We are now looking for a starting point where we can work with our partners in the MTC to engage with the legislature in a discussion, a collaboration without any sort of fixed parameters.”

He said that means looking at projects that can make existing roads more efficient, investing in improving the city’s bus network and potentially looking at bus rapid transit as a stand-in for rail projects.

“The busses in some instances can travel in express lanes, which does move more quickly than regular traffic so finding the right balance of these possibilities,” Driggs said.

Urbanists want commitment to transit

For Eric Zaverl of Sustain Charlotte, it’s disappointing news.

His organization has been advocating for more transit investment and a sales tax increase for years with the hope it solves the city’s traffic problem by getting more drivers off the road.

“If we continue on the same path of only building roads, and only offering anybody who lives in Charlotte or visiting Charlotte, to be forced to drive a car, and there’s no other options, we’re not really solving anything,” he said.

Instead, Zaverl believes investing more in roads and especially widening the city’s major thoroughfares could actually make Charlotte’s traffic worse due to a concept called induced demand.

“Even double that road, that people were driving only on, it would fill up and then you’d still have that same problem,” Zaverl said. “You can triple it, and it’s still going to fill up.”

The theory, based on decades of traffic studies, is that wider highways, with the promise of more space for travelers attract more single-occupancy vehicles to fill the space they’ve created because the drivers are foregoing other options and at the same time, everyone is still trying to get to and from the same place.

“Your destination, where you start out will always have those bottlenecks, no matter how wide you make the road in between,” Zaverl said.

Sustain Charlotte believes light rail would be the most efficient way to move commuters, followed by bus rapid transit, which uses dedicated lanes to establish a right of way favoring transit. Contrary to Moore’s suggestion, Zaverl said a new plan, focused on making room for more single-occupancy vehicles is a less fiscally responsible solution.

“The solution is to provide different ways of getting there,” he said. “Any time you cut down the efficiencies of moving people, you undermined your investment.”

Working towards a compromise

Without legislative approval to get a one percent sales tax on the ballot, however, Driggs said there is no investment to speak of. That’s why he said compromise is imperative to come up with a plan both state leaders and Mecklenburg County voters will approve.

“I think it means that for one that we do not cling to the 80 percent for rail,” he said. “We invest in road projects and we make early investments in some of the rail projects for design and engineering for things like that which is not the really big money around rail.”

Driggs said that can set the stage to get big projects like the Silver Line completed in the future while making progress in other avenues where Charlotte commuters can see immediate improvement.

“We might be able to complete some road projects early on and then not abandon rail entirely,” he said.

It’s too late to get legislative approval in time for the 2024 election. Driggs said now it’s a race to come up with a workable plan for 2025.

“We’re going to discuss different combinations of these modes and not go in with some fixed ideas and then see if we can work with [the legislative leaders] to achieve something that’s acceptable to them that helps solve our problems,” he said.

(WATCH: NCDOT orders all light rail cars with overdue maintenance out of service)

Michelle Alfini

Michelle Alfini, wsoctv.com

Michelle is a climate reporter for Channel 9.