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Drivin' n' Cryin'

If you think traffic congestion in the Charlotte area is bad now, wait till the next million people arrive

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At the time, it made sense. Renee Stockler and her husband were expecting a baby and they wanted the suburban dream: big house, big yard, nice neighborhood.

Traffic congestion at Fairview and Providence in Charlotte - ANGUS LAMOND
  • Angus Lamond
  • Traffic congestion at Fairview and Providence in Charlotte

On a half-acre in Union County, right around the corner from a new elementary school, they built their house just the way they wanted it -- with a wrap-around porch, designer kitchen and separate deck off the master bedroom on the second floor.

It was supposed to be perfect. But Stockler says she hasn't had a chance to enjoy it.

Her commute is sapping the substance out of her life, she says. When they built the house, she worked for an Internet company from home. Now she commutes to a nine-to-five job near the center city. To pull that off, she wakes up at 5:45am, dresses her son, gets ready for work, drops him off at day care and then heads for the office. On the way home, Stockler reverses that process, and by the end of the day she's spent about two and a half hours total on her commute.

"At first I didn't really realize where the time was going," she said. "It just seemed like I didn't have any left at the end of the day. Then it dawned on me: I waste 20 hours a week sitting in traffic."

Stockler and her husband go round and round about moving, but they like their house, the lower taxes and Union County's schools. So they keep thinking about it and she keeps driving -- and wishing someone would do something about the traffic congestion.

Stockler is not alone. In a 2005 business retention survey, roads and transportation infrastructure were ranked the second-worst problem factor out of 24 factors affecting Charlotte's businesses.

It's only going to get worse. Over the next 25 years, Charlotte's population is expected to grow by about 340,000 people. That's like adding the entire population of St. Louis or Cincinnati to Charlotte without any of the additional 530 freeway and arterial miles used to get around in those cities. But in this area, it's the population just outside of the Charlotte city limits that's the killer. In 2000, 1.7 million people lived in Mecklenburg County and the surrounding counties. By 2020, nearly a million more people will move to this region and flood the roadways. Many of those newcomers will settle into the areas surrounding Mecklenburg County that are growing faster in terms of new residential development than the county itself is. Those people will want to use our roads to get where they are going, which more than likely will be to jobs inside Mecklenburg County.

The Texas Transportation Institute already ranks Charlotte the second most-congested mid-sized city in America after Austin, TX, and Charlotte is the 24th most-congested city overall. Last year, some local city council members got a nasty shock when they learned that 29 percent of Charlotte's thoroughfares and streets are ranked at a gridlocked "E" or "F" level of service, the lowest rankings that the nation's transportation planners assign to roads. Between now and 2030, Charlotte and the metro region will invest $7 billion in transit plans and supportive infrastructure. But when the city is done spending all that money, the percentage of E's or F's will be even higher: 64 percent.

David Hartgen, UNCC professor of transportation studies, measures the problem another way. Right now, he said, it takes an average of 30 percent longer to reach a destination in Charlotte during rush hour than it does at other times of the day, according to a measure commonly used by the Texas Transportation Institute. Hartgen expects that number to climb to 60 percent over the next 30 years. That's 15 to 20 percent higher than Atlanta's current congestion level, which is the fourth worst in the nation.

But the Charlotte region has a plan to deal with this, right? The answer depends on whom you ask.

A plan without a plan

In 1998 voters approved a half-cent sales tax for mass transit that will pay for $6.5 billion worth of buses, light rail and other alternatives to the car. Buses and light rail do take drivers off the road, but not enough of them to make a noticeable dent in traffic. To address the roads situation, the city now wants another $3.5 billion from taxpayers. The city council just passed something called the Transportation Action Plan (TAP), a vague policy statement that lays out a wordy strategy for land use and transportation integration in Charlotte but that provides almost no detail as to what the city will actually be doing with the $3.5 billion.

If rush hour refugees were to read the plan from end to end, they would notice something odd about it right away. Namely, that congestion is hardly mentioned at all in the 36-page document.

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