“I do know that we need wider roads, but give us a break.”
-- North Charleston City Councilwoman Dorothy Williams, The Post and Courier, Aug. 8, 2019
How distressing to read of the plight of Dorothy Williams and her Highland Terrace neighbors whose homes are threatened by the S.C. Department of Transportation’s $1.1 billion plan to widen Interstate 526 and reconfigure its intersection with I-26. But why, having borne witness to a half-century of such destructive plans, does she think we need wider roads? Especially when such policy tends to worsen congestion.
Roads are widened at tremendous cost to the many for the enrichment of a privileged few: engineers, road contractors, concrete and asphalt merchants, and associated lawyers and money peddlers. Second-order beneficiaries include those positioned to exploit this traffic-concentrating strategy: land speculators, strip mall developers, auto dealers, fast food franchises, national production home builders, etc.
And, lest we forget, the politicians who collect contributions from these special interests during election campaigns.
Collectively, this group constitutes a sprawl-building industrial complex of massive proportions. Their program does not solve the congestion problem, it perpetuates it.
Here’s the formula:
1. Lobby for wider roads under the pretense they will ease congestion.
2. Wider roads stimulate travel, which boosts fuel use, increasing gas tax revenue.
3. Congestion, temporarily relieved, gradually builds as does political pressure to widen roads again.
4. Increased gas tax revenue (now supplemented with sales tax revenue) combined with debt issuances is used to fund more road widening, which temporarily eases congestion, while stimulating travel, boosting fuel use and gas tax revenue.
5. Wash, rinse, repeat.
It’s a case study for how misaligned incentives foster perverse outcomes.
Before the road widening craze began in the late 1950s, cities developed incrementally with traffic-diffusing networks of relatively narrow streets.
The pattern goes back thousands of years, but the oldest local example is that 62 acres of Charleston once surrounded by walls. The 1670s-era plan for this area consisted of a simple network of six intersecting streets. Over the next century, 10 more streets were developed, crisscrossing the original six, enhancing connectivity and opportunity. Churches, theaters, stores, offices, banks, restaurants, museums, a city hall, school and about 750 homes now occupy the area. Bonus: it’s beautiful!
Highland Terrace has good bones. Its network of narrow streets represents a continuation of the time-tested tradition of the Old Walled City. Had neighborhoods like it, between Charleston International Airport and Cannon Street, not been eviscerated by the highway building mania of the 1960s, who knows what aesthetic, economic and social value might have been conserved and created?
Spending $1.1 billion to make a bad idea worse would be yet another comically absurd exercise in sprawl inducement. Instead redirect funding toward enhancing older networks of narrow roads that lead to life.
Vincent G. Graham is a Charleston-area developer of neighborhoods with narrow streets and a former chairman of the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank.