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Monday, September 30, 2013

Getting there

Do you remember what two-lane US highways were like in the 1960s before Interstate highways opened? I do: slow, unsafe, and unpleasant. Americans have much to thank Dwight Eisenhower for. Among other contributions, he drove the enabling legislation for the Interstate highway system through Congress despite opposition that highway construction should remain the sole responsibility of the states. It's an example of the federal government's expanding its role and undertaking something important that was not going to happen otherwise -- and it was financed with a federal tax increase! Fifty years later, we can't imagine our modern economy and lifestyles without the Interstate system, although the nation's passenger train system nearly died as a consequence.

I-85 is the backbone of North Carolina that connects Charlotte, the Triad, and the Triangle. More than half the state's population live in those three metro areas. When I moved here in 1986, I-85 had fallen victim to NC's rapid and sustained growth. Most of the 233 miles from South Carolina to Virginia were unchanged from the design of the mid-1950s. We had effectively reverted to the drudgery of the pre-Interstate US 29 and US 70.

The good news: by the end of this year, between Gastonia and Durham all but 21 miles of I-85 will have been completely rebuilt. Was it worth the cost of more than a billion dollars? Definitely. Was it a permanent solution to the corridor's transportation problems? No. There are practical and financial limits on how wide a highway can be made, and the population of the state continues to grow. Congestion will inevitably snarl all that new concrete sooner or later.

Driven by the leadership of former Governor Jim Hunt, NCDOT has one of the best state-run programs in the nation for passenger rail. By 2020 there will be five daily round-trips between Raleigh and Charlotte operating at speeds up to 90 mph. The trains will outrun traffic on I-85, downtown to downtown, even on an uncongested day. That's what we need for the next 50 years. The only question is whether our reactionary General Assembly will impede progress.