Charlotte drivers spend 40 hours a year stuck in traffic, study says

Think you’re spending more time stuck in Charlotte traffic?

A new study says you’re right. Increasingly clogged roads mean drivers are spending an estimated 40 hours a year – one solid workweek – stuck in traffic delays.

Local and state leaders say help might be slow in coming, as tight budgets and slow tax collections are making road and mass transit dollars increasingly scarce.

Congestion is costing each Charlotte-area driver $898 annually in lost time and wasted fuel, according to the study, released Tuesday by TRIP, a transportation think tank sponsored in part by businesses involved in highway engineering and construction.

Forty-four percent of major roads in the Charlotte area are in either poor or subpar condition, the study said. Those roads cost each driver an additional $378 per year in repairs, tire wear and other operating costs.

Overall, the study said, each Charlotte driver pays $1,513 in extra expenses annually.

The Charlotte Chamber held a press conference to highlight the issues raised in the study. Chamber President Bob Morgan said the Charlotte metropolitan area has about 2 million residents, and the number is expected to double in the next 20 years.

That brings opportunities for Charlotte businesses, but “there are also sobering challenges,” he said. “How do we continue to move people and products in and through the region in a way that we stay competitive?”

Finding the money to pay for necessary road and transit projects is increasingly tough, said David Howard, a Charlotte City Council member who is co-chairman of a regional group seeking more money for transit.

“Charlotte is just starting to feel a lot of the pains that cities like Houston and Atlanta felt decades ago,” he said. “Some of this just comes along with being a metropolitan area.”

Building more roads isn’t the only solution, said Meg Fencil, education and outreach program director for Sustain Charlotte, a nonprofit group promoting environmentally sensitive urban growth patterns.

She said Charlotte needs to focus on financing more mass transit and building more sidewalks and bike lanes.

“It all comes back to the economic and environmental impact of putting more cars on the road versus taking them off by providing more transportation options,” she said.

The study by Washington, D.C.-based TRIP comes as the N.C. Department of Transportation moves ahead on area construction projects the agency says are worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Among them:

• The widening of Interstate 85 in Cabarrus County, which the state expects to finish this spring or early summer.

• Two I-485 projects: completion of the last leg in northeast Mecklenburg and the widening of the stretch in south Charlotte from I-77 to Rea Road. Both are due to be completed this year.

• Widening I-77 in north Mecklenburg by adding a toll lane in each direction. Residents have objected, but state officials hope to select a private construction partner by this summer.

• Extending the Independence Boulevard freeway to East W.T. Harris Boulevard by 2016.

• Building two toll roads for the region that would cost more than $1.5 billion. But it’s unclear whether the Garden Parkway and Monroe Connector/Bypass will be built due to litigation from the Southern Environmental Law Center and opposition from some residents.

Despite the many road projects, the area’s transportation infrastructure isn’t keeping pace with population growth, said Carolyn Bonifas Kelly, the official from TRIP who conducted the study.

She said North Carolina could lose $1 billion in federal transportation dollars later this year if Congress doesn’t pass legislation necessary to keep key programs running at current levels.

The state isn’t flush with cash, either. The gas tax collections used for road projects have been falling in recent years. The state is going to a new system for prioritizing transportation projects; that could benefit Charlotte and other congested urban areas, but it won’t increase the level of state transportation spending.

State officials are increasingly looking to do more public-private partnerships in which private contractors would shoulder some of the cost for big-ticket projects such as the I-77 toll lanes in exchange for some of the profits.

“Other states are in the same situation as we are in,” DOT spokeswoman Jen Thompson said, “trying to do more with less and looking for creative ways to do it.”

And on the local level, a city bond issue on the ballot this fall will include between $200 million and $300 million in road projects, Morgan said.

Charlotte also has committed to mass transit as a means of alleviating congestion, but the city lacks enough money to cover major needs under the Charlotte Area Transit System’s long-range plan. Officials have said slow consumer spending has meant the half-cent sales tax for transit that Mecklenburg voters passed in 1998 is falling about $5 billion short in financing CATS’ 2030 plan.

The plan includes commuter rail to the Lake Norman area and transit corridors to Charlotte Douglas International Airport and the Matthews area.

Asked whether the chamber will push for an increase in the sales tax, Morgan said that hasn’t been decided. He said public-private partnerships may be part of the answer.

The chamber, CATS and the Foundation for the Carolinas joined forces with the Clinton Global Initiative earlier this month to convene a two-day conference aimed at educating state and local officials about public-private partnerships.

Howard said the gathering, which attracted experts from the around the country, left him optimistic that the needs can be met.

“At some point, you have to get creative,” he said. “It’s Charlotte’s turn.” Staff writer Steve Harrison contributed.

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