Recently The Herald Weekly reported on the Lake Norman area’s explosive growth. With that in mind, suppose for a moment you sit on the board of a powerful transportation planning organization. You’re tasked with divvying up taxpayer money, which is never enough, to all the road projects you want to build, which are always too many. How do you decide which ones go forward and which ones end up in a ditch?
If you’re like the real planning organization (Mecklenburg-Union Metropolitan Planning Organization, or MUMPO), you develop a list of criteria and then rate projects using a zero-to-five scale. Projects that score high are laid at the altar of Raleigh in the hopes they’ll find favor in the eyes of the NCDOT.
Now that you’re a planning expert, it’s quiz time. Which one of the following criteria would you NOT choose?
• Will this road have a bus stop (or a Park & Ride)?
• Will this road go past an airport or train station?
• Will this road be close to the center of Charlotte?
• Will this road serve a high growth area?
Hold your answer a moment while we talk about I-77. The stretch through Lake Norman was built in 1978 and hasn’t been upgraded since even though area’s growth rate rivals what you’d find in a Petri dish. In fact, it’s among the most congested four-lane roads in the state.
But right now MUMPO isn’t planning on widening I-77 until 2035. They’ve got 91 other things they think are more important. Kinda makes you wonder what MUMPO uses for criteria, doesn’t it?
So about that quiz? Yes, the answer is “d”. MUMPO does not consider an area’s growth rate when deciding what roads should be built. Maybe that bothers you, but what should really clog your carburetor is that the other three actually are MUMPO criteria. No kidding. In fact, MUMPO uses 11 criteria, and only one has anything to do with how many cars a road is expected to carry.
And MUMPO gives all 11 equal weight. Seriously, in MUMPO’s eyes having a bus stop or connecting to a train station is as important as relieving congestion. Unfortunately, widening I-77 does neither and scores a pair of goose eggs for those criteria.
Also, fellow Cornelians, since we’re more than 16 miles from the center of Charlotte we’re all zeroes, at least according to MUMPO. Sorry I had to break it to you. (Of course, this begs the question: Why does a regional planning organization give priority to the center of a city, but surely MUMPO asked that question. Surely.)
Widening I-77 scores a couple more zeroes on “impact to the environment” and “improves air quality.” Perhaps adding a lane won’t kill any Snail Darters, so no environmental impact, and the only way to improve air quality (MUMPO believes) is with HOV lanes. Getting 20,000 cars moving again with another general purpose lane doesn’t help the score one bit.
The last zero: I-77 doesn’t “support minority or low-income communities.” That’s really a criterion – for a road. Somewhere on the journey to responsible planning, we took a left turn and ended up in Great Society territory.
Heck, before the widening project even hits the onramp, it’s misfired on 6 of 11 criteria. No surprise then it comes idling to a stop at No. 92 on MUMPO’s “to do” list. Mercifully, this summer MUMPO is slated to have a “criteria review.”
But summer may be too late. Already work is afoot to add a toll lane on I-77 because we can’t get funding any other way. You’ll be shelling out a few bucks for the privilege of driving in a lane you’ve already paid for to avoid traffic congestion caused by too few lanes in the first place.
Some folks wring their hands and say, “Well, a toll lane is better than nothing.” Really? Which would you rather do: Continually bang your thumb with a hammer or slam it in a car door twice a day? We’re facing the transportation equivalent because MUMPO can’t get their priorities straight. If they did, they’d have a third general-purpose lane on the drawing board already. We know growth isn’t coming to a halt, but traffic sure is.
I’m not saying the MUMPO folks are lousy cooks, but even a Michelin chef can’t make a soufflé rise using rotten eggs.
Speaking of which, would you like to meet for breakfast on I-77? We can dine on rotten eggs while waiting for traffic to move.
– Kurt Naas, Cornelius
Kurt Naas has formed a grassroots organization to widen I-77 with general purpose lanes. You can reach him at email@example.com.