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Why Do Roads Suck?

Let’s talk about roads. To start, why does it take so long to build a road? For example, planning for the I-485 loop in Charlotte first began in 1975. Construction didn’t begin until 1988. It’s still not done. Or consider I-540 in Raleigh. Planning for that road first began in the early 1970’s. Construction did not begin until 1992. It, too, remains unfinished. Even your run-of-the-mill road widening project takes an eternity to complete. When it is completed, the widening of the southern stretch of I-485, which adds all of one lane in each direction along a 9.2 mile length of highway, will take nearly three years to complete (assuming it is completed on time). Repaving 11.5 miles of I-440 in southern Wake County (the so-called “Fortify” project) is projected to take at least 3 years.

Not only do roads take forever to build, they are also prohibitively expensive. Take the I-485 expansion noted above. Simply adding one lane in each direction for 9.2 miles (or a total of 18.4 miles or road surface) is projected to cost $83.3 million. With an average daily volume of approximately 50,000 vehicles, that works out to about $1700 per car for just this project. The amount of money the government spends on just roads is obscene. Last year, the NCDOT’s budget for new construction and maintenance was $2.72 billion, which works out to about $2710 for every man, woman, and child in the state.

Even this is not enough to satisfy the voracious appetite of the state’s road-builders. The state is claiming that it no longer has enough money to pay for new construction and maintenance. So what is the solution? Toll roads! Toll roads are really quite a creative government funding mechanism, because instead of just paying for the road once at its initial construction (and some follow-up maintenance later), state tax payers get to pay all of those upfront costs plus a user fee every time they roll down the road.

A not-unusual scene of North Carolina's roads

A not-unusual scene of the chaos of North Carolina’s roads

The latest twist on toll roads is to add tolled “Guaranteed Speed Lanes” alongside existing lanes. These new tolled lanes take advantage of the waste and inefficiency of the current road design and charge you a toll (which varies by time of day and volume) to use the lane which guarantees a minimum speed limit. So, while all of the poor commuting schlubs are stuck rolling down an alleged high-speed highway at 10-15 mph, you get to blow on by them going at least 55-60 mph.

Rather than correcting the failings of the current system, the state government is increasingly looking at using these types of tolled lanes throughout North Carolina’s urban areas. Of course, this type of tolling does little to encourage more innovative roads better designed to handle daily traffic volumes. Instead, it actually encourages further waste and inefficiency in road construction, as slow-moving traffic may induce more people to use the toll lanes. Except what usually ends up happening (if the I-540 expansion is any indication) is that no-one uses the new toll roads. So, the state gets to dump a bunch of money into a road no one uses and, traffic continues to get worse. Yay!

Given the disaster that is the public highway, it’s hard to believe that this is the best we can do. Is there not a better way? After all, it would likely be pretty difficult to do much worse.