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How are we doing? – Sprawl hurts roads

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(Editor’s note:  The N.C. Progress Board, a group created by state lawmakers to track trends in North Carolina and set goals for the state, issued its first report in December 2001.)

(Each week, the Philanthropy Journal spotlights an issue examined in the report.  The goals, targets and analysis below are those of the Progress Board.)

North Carolina first earned recognition as the “good roads” state in the 1920s when it enacted gas taxes, approved a highway bond issue and assumed responsibility for all roads outside of cities.

Its reputation for good highways was a direct result of public vision and leadership.

At the dawn of the 21st century, the state’s resolve on transportation issues is being tested again.

There is growing doubt that North Carolina’s transportation system can meet the needs of its growing population and dynamic economy. 

As the state’s population has grown — about 10.5 percent over the past decade — and become increasingly urban, its highways have become more congested, especially along urban corridors.

Such congestion is a function of population growth, but it also may be exacerbated by excessive reliance on single-occupancy vehicles. 

Other transportation investments, including inter-modal terminals near interstates and aviation-related infrastructure, have become vital contributors to economic prosperity.

Will good roads — assuming we can maintain them — be enough to meet our diverse transportation needs?

In 1990, the General Assembly approved construction of a 3,100-mile intrastate highway program designed to bring 90 percent of the residents within 10 miles of a major multi-lane highway, or a four-lane road.

During the 1990s, the state increased access to multi-lane roads, but it also witnessed steady increases in the number of vehicle-miles traveled per person.

As we struggle to keep pace with our growing population and transportation needs, will we be able to afford a policy that promotes access rather than efficiency?

North Carolina does not measure transportation efficiency. 

Ironically, North Carolina lacks a strategic measure for tracking the efficiency of its transportation system.

While transportation efficiency is difficult to measure, some states use per-capita vehicle miles traveled as an indicator of transportation efficiency.

Using this measure, it appears that North Carolina’s transportation system is not only less efficient than most other state systems, but becoming less efficient with every passing year.

We no longer can ignore our increasing reliance on the automobile.

North Carolina ranks 9th in the U.S. in vehicle miles traveled per capita, and its annual vehicle miles traveled per capita is 21 percent higher than the national rate, according to the Federal Highway Administration 2000 Highway Statistics, released in February 2001. This is due in part to the fact that North Carolina is not as urbanized as many other large states.

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