Guest Columnist

Asking the right questions about Interstate 380 expansion

Traffic travels along Interstate 380 north of Swisher. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Traffic travels along Interstate 380 north of Swisher. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

Asking the right question is the first step to finding the right answer.

Asking how many lanes should be added to the Corridor’s corridor, I-380, may not be the right question.

“Slow elevator” complaints caused a hotel manager to call in engineers. Complaints continued. Someone suggested, “Your problem is not elevators, it’s complaints.” So perceived, the solution was full-length mirrors by each elevator. Guests’ who admired themselves while waiting no longer complained.

As I wrote in “How to Totally Eliminate Flood Damage,” the question is not how to have less water in the river, it’s how to have fewer structures in the flood plain.

The Iowa DOT’s December 2018 I-380 Planning Study compares favorably with similar studies elsewhere. Unfortunately, most of them recommend what board consultant John Carver describes as “doing the wrong things better.”

The study mentions CRANDIC. Most nations use passenger rail. That iron horse left Iowa’s barn a century ago when we had 10,500 rail miles. The auto industry campaigned to replace tracks with auto dealerships. Now U.S. highways and parking lots cover an area roughly the size of Iowa, and Americans pay from $7,000 to $10,000 a year to drive cars. China has 2,800 pairs of trains traveling 200 mph between 550 cities. We have CRANDIC.

Even if this was a “congestion” problem, most studies find additional lanes increase congestion. Economists call it “induced demand.” What did Houston get for its $2.8 billion expansion of the Katy Freeway to 26 lanes? Increased travel times of 55 percent.

Sometimes removing freeway lanes is both cheaper and more effective than adding them. San Francisco cut lanes and daily 100,000-passenger freeway traffic in half and created one of its better neighborhoods in its place.

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But the I-380 question should not be, “what’s the best way to make room for more cars?” It’s “what are the alternatives to requiring a population the size of a large Iowa community to relocate daily, like unwelcome immigrants, up and down I-380?”

There are many possibilities. Some have been tried. Most require good will among governments, businesses and employees.

Educate the public to the full cost, in dollars and time, of commuting by car; the months they must work just to pay for getting to work.

Parents buy homes close enough to schools their kids can walk. Imagine the savings if the homes were close enough to work those parents could walk.

Guest column: More capacity on I-380 won’t lead to less congestion

Guest column: Local economy depends on infrastructure, including wider I-380

Staff editorial: Widening Interstate 380 not a holistic solution to transportation woes

Employers could be encouraged to pay workers enough to afford neighborhood housing at 30 percent of their income, or work with governments and landlords to subsidize workers’ rents.

Plans for new businesses and factories could include plans for employee housing.

Current businesses could create regional or coworking centers closer to employees’ homes.

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Rethink “employment.” Instead of buying an employee’s time in place, employers could buy their productivity from anyplace.

Employers could rethink communications. What’s the most efficient mix of one-on-one face-to-face, group face-to-face, group phone or video meetings; reaching customers with personal meetings, phone calls, personal emails and texts, newsletters? Did everyone have to be at that last meeting?

Must employees be in “the office” every day to do their work? Andrew Carnegie, the richest man in the world, used telegraph messages to manage Carnegie Steel from China and elsewhere. Today, 100 years later, 50 percent of our workforce hold jobs compatible with what we now call telecommuting.

We can’t solve I-380 congestion with the hotel manager’s mirrors. Nor are more lanes the answer. The answer will be found in creatively redrafting the question.

Nicholas Johnson of Iowa City promoted containerized shipping as U.S. Maritime Administrator in 1964, and is the author of Columns of Democracy. Comments: mailbox@nicholasjohnson.org

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