I found myself in an unusual place around 5 p.m. on a recent weekday: On Cantrell Road, west of Mississippi Street, driving toward downtown.
Normally I would be headed in the opposite direction, sitting in the slow-moving traffic and unaware of how far it stretched behind and ahead of me.
It was strikingly different to pass mile after mile of cars packed bumper-to-bumper, to see the helpless and frustrated looks on the drivers’ faces, and to suddenly understand the magnitude of the problem.
Road congestion isn’t an abstract issue, and it isn’t confined to Arkansas’s larger urban areas. When existing routes can’t accommodate increased use, backups result. And that is happening not only within city limits throughout the state, but also along commuter paths between cities, and even in rural areas, such as those experiencing the Fayetteville shale natural gas boom.
The problem is particularly bad in Little Rock because, since its earliest days, development has moved mostly in one direction — west — and there are few main arteries servicing that high-traffic corridor.
But similar challenges exist in fast-growing cities like Conway, Benton and Cabot, as well as in the sprawling areas of Northwest Arkansas. When only one or two main roads are assigned to handle the most frequently-traveled routes, rush hour can be an all-day phenomenon.
And aside from the annoyance and inconvenience, our inadequate infrastructure is costly in real and measurable ways, from reduced efficiency and productivity to recurring road maintenance and repair.
The solution seems simple: Build more roads and widen the existing ones. Last October, Stephens Inc. CEO Warren Stephens suggested as much when he called for a new east-west thoroughfare in Little Rock. And earlier this week, Gov. Mike Beebe proposed spending $100 million from the budget surplus for small highway projects (like widening roads), raising the diesel fuel tax and extending interstate highway bonds.
But as logical as those ideas sound, they may not be realistic or effective. In the case of densely developed urban and suburban areas, options for alternative routes are limited, and acquiring additional land by eminent domain is difficult and expensive.
Even worse, numerous studies suggest that expanding roads and highways is at best a temporary fix, and often just adds to existing problems.
“If you’re simply widening congested roadways with the idea you’ll get rid of congestion, that’s naive,” said Lewis M. Fulton, a policy analyst who researched an effect known as “induced travel,” which occurs when motorists utilize an artery more often because it has a new lane, or when a wider road facilitates more development, producing even more traffic.
So even when a road is built or widened in Arkansas (Interstate 40, for example), traffic congestion will not necessarily improve, despite the enormous amount of time and money devoted to the project. With the additional traffic, roads will wear down more rapidly, and the expensive cycle will continue.
It would seem more logical and economical to invest in functional public transportation around Arkansas. That not only means municipal systems, like citywide public bus routes, but also regional light-rail networks in places like Central and Northwest Arkansas.
Yes, the initial outlay to establish this kind of infrastructure would be significant, but it would diminish the unending and exponential costs of road construction and maintenance by reducing automobile use.
After all, we have spent $1 billion since 1999 just to improve 356 miles of interstate in Arkansas. The state highway department allocated $450 million in 2005 alone for projects on a system that includes only 17 percent of all public roads here.
Meanwhile, for those who doubt that public transportation could succeed in a small, Southern state like Arkansas, consider what is happening in Charlotte, N.C., a metropolitan area often held up as a model for Little Rock to emulate. The first of five light-rail lines will begin operating there in November as part of a 25-year, $3.9 billion regional economic development plan.
“It’s a guarantee that in certain corridors, employees can get to work in a guaranteed amount of time,” Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, a Republican, told a North Carolina newspaper. “Not just next year, but 30 years from now. And that’s a guarantee employers are going to start looking for.”
Not to mention their employees. All it takes is another spike in the price of oil (can you say “war with Iran?”) for the average work commute to become far more costly — especially when you’re idling in traffic.
So even if cities like Little Rock had the money and available land to build more roads, it wouldn’t be cost-effective in the long-term.
Unless, of course, businesses and people decided that it was too expensive and inefficient to live and work in Arkansas. That would fix the traffic problems, too.