News | August 25, 2015

Word on the Street: Looking beyond the bypass

SELC’s Land and Community Program tackles the growth challenges and decisions shaping the Southeast. This series of posts runs every other week and highlights the broader issues driving this work—transportation and land use developments, alternatives, and progress in our region.

No one disputes that traffic congestion can be a real problem. Too often, however, transportation officials default to the costly, outdated approach of building even more miles of highway to try to bypass congestion, rather than addressing the root causes of the problem.  

Although it is intuitively appealing to think that new roads can solve our traffic problems, experience has shown that they often do not. Billions of dollars have been poured into highway construction in the Southeast in recent years. These roads often serve as can openers to the countryside, cutting through natural and rural areas. Subdivisions then spring up along – and businesses relocate to – the newly accessible areas The resulting sprawl makes people more dependent on their cars, ultimately generating more vehicles on the road, longer drives, and more congestion.

North Carolina’s Monroe Bypass, a bypass of a bypass, is a great example of this. The project would bypass a stretch of road that leads from Charlotte to the coast and cut through an area surrounded by cheap, rural land. The existing roadway was originally created to reroute heavier traffic around Monroe, but no attention was paid to how land use decisions might impact traffic flow. It did not take long for businesses and big-box store to move to where the drivers were, and now 27 stop lights span that stretch of road. Rather than improve the gridlock for local drivers, NCDOT proposed a massive $900 million bypass that would have a devastating impact on the environment. SELC has opposed the project for years and has successfully advocated for a number of small-scale, low-cost and low-impact alternative solutions that have begun to be implemented to great success.  Traffic flow has improved significantly, and many similar solutions are available.  Unfortunately, moneyed interests still favor the colossal bypass, and SELC continues to actively fight it.

The Charlottesville Bypass is another excellent example where improving existing roads provides a less destructive and more effective alternative than building a new bypass. For years SELC, local officials, and our partners opposed plans for a controversial bypass proposed around a commercial stretch of Route 29 near Charlottesville where local drivers make up 85-90% of the traffic. By focusing on the true case of congestion and alternatives designed to address those problems, we were able to convince Virginia officials to finally abandon the proposal last year. Instead, a package of improvements is now underway that includes expanding the network of local roads that run parallel to Route 29, giving local drivers alternate routes to reach their destinations along the highway while simultaneously freeing up capacity for those passing through the area. In addition, state-of-the-art traffic light synchronization is being installed, and key congestion points are being addressed with targeted fixes.

Two of the other bypass proposals in our region that would create more problems than they might solve are the Outer Beltway in Northern Virginia and Birmingham’s Beltline. These projects would spur sprawl, inflict huge damage on natural and historic resources, and divert transportation funds from far more beneficial solutions.

“As we’ve seen again and again, bypasses often fail to resolve the congestion they’re designed to avoid and quickly fill up with the new traffic they generate, and our environment and our communities lose big in the long run,” summarized Trip Pollard, leader of our Land & Community Program.  “Fortunately, there are better solutions to our traffic problems.”

SELC is working throughout our region to encourage officials to determine the true cause of congestion, such as poorly timed lights or local traffic with no alternatives. With that understanding in place, a suite of improvements can be developed to provide long-term traffic relief, including:

  • Augmenting local road networks 
  • Adding turn lanes
  • Improving transit options
  • Optimizing traffic signal timing.

By pursuing these and other solutions, and moving beyond bypasses as a knee-jerk reaction to congestion, we can develop more effective responses to the traffic problems we encounter every day while protecting our communities and our environment.

Read previous posts in the Word on the Street series.