Charleston County Council members should take a field trip. Or several of them.
As they continue to move forward with longstanding plans to build the rest of I-526 across Johns and James islands — at as much as a $750 million cost to taxpayers — members should witness the folly of similar projects elsewhere.
They might start in Houston, home to what may now be the widest freeway in the world at an incomprehensible 26 lanes. The $2.8 billion effort to widen the Katy Freeway to that monstrosity resulted in a substantial increase in commute times.
Or take for example a $1 billion project to add lanes to I-405 in Los Angeles. Within less than a year of the effort’s completion, commutes took longer than before.
Even places like Portland, Oregon, which is known for investing in non-car transportation options, can’t seem to turn down misguided freeway projects. But at least planners are clear-eyed about the probable results.
The Oregon Department of Transportation isn’t even pretending that a proposed $450 million effort to add new lanes on I-5 through Portland would reduce congestion. They freely admit it would dramatically increase the freeway’s usage.
That’s based on data from countless past efforts to reduce traffic congestion that almost always end up increasing gridlock in the long run.
So Oregon DOT officials are suggesting instead that the expansion would reduce crashes and cut greenhouse gas emissions by improving traffic flow, both of which are dubious assumptions to say the least.
To be sure, these projects are examples of widening existing freeways, not constructing new ones. But the principle is the same.
People respond to reduced congestion by driving more, living farther from the urban core and adjusting their commute schedules, which eventually eliminates any initial improvements and often leaves people worse off than before.
It’s worth noting that a project to widen the existing I-526 is also in the early planning stages.
If the futility of trying to cut traffic congestion by adding road capacity isn’t enough to sway Charleston County Council — and it hasn’t been so far — then perhaps members should visit the many cities that are tearing down freeways to reclaim valuable land and knit communities back together.
Ironically, Portland is a good example. The city now has an attractive waterfront park where an expressway once ran alongside the Willamette River.
Rochester, New York, also recently demolished a section of an urban freeway and has ambitious plans to create new neighborhoods where the road once split its city center in two.
Boston has parks and smaller-scale streets where a raised highway once swooped around the southeastern edge of its downtown.
Other, smaller roads projects could have just as much impact in improving traffic flow on Johns and James islands as the 526 effort for a fraction of the cost to taxpayers and with far less environmental impact.
Charleston should heed the warning from so many other cities that have wasted time and taxpayer dollars on big-ticket boondoggles and invest in those projects first.