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John Hood: Roads are a solution, not the problem

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Winston-Salem Transit Authority buses are prepared for the next day in March 2020.

RALEIGH — While Charlotte is known as the Queen City, the behavior of its leaders sometimes invites comparison to a different monarch: Hans Christian Anderson’s newly “clothed” Emperor. Earlier this month, the tale was restaged with House Speaker Tim Moore in the role of the plain-spoken youth.

Appearing at a Charlotte Business Alliance forum alongside Senate leader Phil Berger, Moore answered a reporter’s question about the city’s $13.5 billion proposal for new rail lines, bus service and other transportation projects. To help finance it, Charlotte leaders want to raise the sales tax again. They need the General Assembly to authorize putting the tax hike to a referendum.

For the North Carolina House to go along, Moore explained, such a plan “needs to be focused on road capacity.” In its current form, about 80% of the $13.5 billion would be spent on transit.

“I think we really need to be looking at road construction,” the speaker explained. “If you get out and you drive anywhere and 95% of people are driving a car, they are not riding a bike. They are not riding a bus. I think bus ridership after COVID is at abysmally low levels.”

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He’s right about that — and it’s not just in the Charlotte region. Nationwide, transit ridership has recovered a bit from its 2020 trough but remains a third lower than it was before the onset of COVID-19.

I’ve long favored the provision of bus service as a form of public assistance, and as an alternative along a few highly congested corridors. I do not, however, believe the share of “choice” riders — those North Carolinians who could commute by passenger vehicle but elect not to do so — will ever be significant enough to affect traffic congestion, air quality, or other often-stated policy goals.

Moore appears to agree. Not surprisingly, the speaker drew critical comments from local politicians and transit boosters. One common refrain was to ridicule Moore’s emphasis on road capacity by arguing that new roads or lanes won’t help because of “induced demand” — the notion that new capacity serves only to induce more people to drive, leaving the corridor just as congested as before.

Moreover, while fast-growing places are going to experience more traffic, the best available evidence suggests that it is precisely where more and better roads are built that traffic congestion is less egregious.

What’s more realistic? Allowing people to live closer to where they work, and to work from home more often. Oh, and adding highway capacity more quickly. Don’t be fooled by transit dreams woven of gossamer threads.

John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member. His latest books, “Mountain Folk” and “Forest Folk,” combine epic fantasy with early American history (FolkloreCycle.com).

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