I grew up on wheels. My family has a picture of me steering a big John Deere tractor when I was 4. Now, even though I’m old enough to know better, I still get excited about road trips. I plug in a vintage Creedence Clearwater Revival CD — Big wheel keep on turnin’ / Proud Mary keep on burnin’ / Rollin’, rollin’ — and crank up the bass. Reporting takes me from one end of the state to the other. Over and over.
But the fun is fading. Traffic is strangling this state, and not even money — North Carolina is spending $2.7 billion on highways this fiscal year — seems to help. Efforts to fix problems often seem to make them worse. Every business ought to be up in arms, if not over the safety and health of employees, then the bottom line.
I pondered this a few days ago as I sat like a fume-flummoxed lemming in a 15-mile-long traffic jam on Interstate 85 just north of Concord. I had crawled through Charlotte’s morning traffic and reached what I thought was the open road — Big wheel keep on turnin’ — when a solid wall of brake lights loomed ahead. Two 18-wheelers had wrecked in a construction zone near Salisbury. I inched ahead — two miles in 30 minutes — made it to an exit, swung southeast, then north on N.C. 49. More than three hours later, I completed my 118-mile trip to Gibsonville, near Burlington. That’s nowhere near my record. A couple of years ago, it took me nearly five hours to get the 143 miles to Raleigh. Major accidents cut my average speed to about 30 mph. And the problem isn’t confined to the interstates.
The most obvious reason employers ought to be concerned — outraged — is lost productivity. A Texas research institute calculated that Triangle drivers spend the equivalent of three workdays a year sitting in traffic jams. By 2020, they’ll spend a third of their time on the road stuck in traffic. Predictions are equally dire for Charlotte — and not so hot for the Triad. Travel is a crapshoot, so I leave for appointments ridiculously early; I had given myself three hours to reach Gibsonville. For early appointments, I go the night before, wasting time and money on a motel room.
More highways might help. I-73 and 74 are inching north to south through the state, but new roads are no panacea. Case in point: Traffic nearly shut down the first link of Charlotte’s new 61-mile beltway the day it opened. There’s a clamor to add more lanes to sections as soon as they open. North Carolina, which once called itself the Good Roads State, has become the Bad Driving State. We might have to accept that travel today is often as slow as when cars sported tail fins. But maybe we can try some common sense. There’s no reason thousands of motorists can’t be warned off when construction or accidents shut down interstates. Or that more work be done at night and off-peak hours. Or that better traffic engineering tactics be employed.
Most of all, though, maybe we need to get tough with what we’ve got. Highways are meant to move vehicles. But developers have more sway over when and where roads are built and the number of exits they have than transportation planners do. For example: the proposed I-3 cutting through the Smoky Mountains. It’s time we go back to building roads for cars and trucks. Otherwise, travel in North Carolina is going to keep rolling downhill. Rollin’, rollin’.