In 2004 the Katy Freeway in Houston Texas was named the nation’s second worst traffic bottleneck by the American Highway Users Alliance. Then Texas spent $2.8 billion to expand Katy to a staggering 23 lanes, making it the widest highway in the world.
You’ll probably be surprised to learn what happened next. Commute times increased by 25 minutes during the morning rush and by 23 minutes during evening rush hour. Katy is not a fluke. Study after study has shown that widening highways doesn’t reduce congestion.
When you expand a freeway (or add auto capacity to any road) more people choose to drive, more often, and more developers build subdivisions and strip malls that can only be reached by car. Expanding freeways creates the traffic the expanded freeway was supposed to relieve, and deepens our nation’s crippling dependency on the automobile. Building and expanding roads actually increases congestion. This phenomenon even has a name, “induced demand.” We can’t build our way out of traffic congestion.
Despite this, the Iowa Department of Transportation wants to spend $220 million to expand Interstate 380 to six lanes to relieve congestion. At an open house in October, Iowa DOT officials told me the cost of rebuilding 380 without adding extra lanes would be about $150 million. The officials said that cost was for rebuilding the nearly 50-year-old highway from the ground up.
Expanding I-380 won’t reduce congestion, but it will further our regions dependency on the automobile when we should be investing in ways to free people from the burden of car ownership.
According to Lending Tree, the average monthly payment for a used vehicle is $381, and a $530 for a new car. Seven million Americans are delinquent on their car loans. That doesn’t even account for gas, insurance and maintenance. The cost of owning a car is simply too much to bear for a substantial number of households. Should we really be pursuing public policy that forces people into debt?
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We also need to curb our car use dramatically if we want any hope of having a livable climate. You already knew that though.
Instead of wasting money expanding I-380 let’s use the $70 million difference between the current road and the proposed expansion and invest in public transit in Linn and Johnson counties.
We should build bus-rapid-transit (BRT) systems in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, and expand 380Express, including adding routes down 965 and Highway 1. We should also increase frequency along our existing bus routes, so that a bus comes every fifteen minutes at least, with the goal of shrinking that number even further.
BRT has a lot of the features people love about commuter rail - like dedicated stations and right-of-ways, wait-time displays, simple fare structures, and easy-to-understand routes - but uses a bus instead of a train. It’s one of the most cost-effective solutions we have for moving a lot of people through a community. Eugene and Springfield Oregon built a BRT line linking their two downtowns for $24 million and saw ridership jump 74 percent.
It makes long-term economic sense too. BRT improves property values, generates economic development and attracts new jobs, retail and housing. It’s also easy to scale up capacity on BRT. Add more buses.
Expanding I-380 means choosing to continue to develop sprawl that damages our environment, and sucks money out of the pockets of hardworking Iowans. Instead we can choose to invest our taxpayer dollars in a transportation system that improves our community.
Benjamin Kaplan of Cedar Rapids is a co-founder of Corridor Urbanism.