Traffic expert weighs in on Charlotte-area congestion

Charlotte's traffic problems
Published: May. 19, 2017 at 12:08 AM EDT|Updated: May. 22, 2017 at 7:43 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Charlotte's roads are likely to get worse before they ever get better, assuming the region's traffic can ever subside.

WBTV wanted to know if there is an end in sight for the constant tapping on the brakes many drivers experience on their daily commute. So, we flew in Bill Eisele, a congestion expert who works at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.

Eisele is part of a team of experts that compiles the Urban Mobility Study. The report evaluates congestion in the country's metro regions.

In the most recent  Urban Mobility Study, released in 2015, Charlotte was in the top third of metro areas for congestion.

Driving the clogged streets of Charlotte one recent day, Eisele predicted the congestion would only get worse as more people and industry moves to the region.

"Charlotte is a wonderful place to live and work and be, so we can expect that congestion is going to climb up as well," he said, noting that traffic congestion can be a symptom of successful growth for a city.

Reducing, not eliminating, congestion

Eisele said transportation planners can focus on optimizing the current roadways to try and achieve short-term fixes; things like increasing motorist assistance patrols to clear up accidents and encourage other means of travel.

"The last thing you want is this congestion that you sort of expect every day, because people are just coming into work, but what we try to avoid on top of that is some kind of crash because those are the days that's more frustrating," he said.

Eisele referred to the period of time in which people are most likely on the road—heading to and from work—as peak periods. Traffic congestion is worse at what he called the peak-of-the-peak periods.

It's that time of the day, when the most drivers are trying to get to the same place at once, that Eisele said you really can't ever solve.

"Because we have limited capacity and limited right of way, we can't eliminate congestion," he said. "What we can do is try to make things more reliable.

No building out of congestion

One piece of bad news for area drivers: Eisele said there is likely no way to build enough road to eliminate traffic congestion altogether.

For one thing, building more road requires acquiring more right of way and spending years on planning and building.

Eisele said one strategy is to use toll lanes—like what's being built on I-77—to offer drivers a trip guaranteed to be at a certain speed.

That way, he said, drivers can have an option to get somewhere faster if it's important to them. But Eisele said toll lanes are not an answer for more congestion, just a different tool to offer a way out of sitting in traffic.

In fact, Eisele said, building options like toll lanes are a good place to turn when simply building free lanes isn't enough to ease congestion.

"Even if we were to add additional general purpose lanes, we're still going to get to a point that if you make it better, people who are not driving here now, they'll come back," he explained.

"So, you're saying no matter how many general purpose lanes you build, people would still flock to them and clog them up?" a reporter asked. "It would happen eventually," Eisele replied.

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