What if we can’t fix 380?

We've been dealing with congestion since the dawn of the automobile. And there's no hope in sight. Photo from Flickr.

We’ve been dealing with congestion since the dawn of the automobile. And there’s no hope in sight. Photo from Flickr.

Right now in the corridor there’s a push to widen Interstate 380 between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids. The cost estimate of widening 380 in the corridor is $170 million. Proponents say this will decrease congestion and reduce the number of accidents. Here’s why they’re wrong.

It’s called the fundamental law of traffic congestion and it goes like this; making roads bigger doesn’t reduce congestion. The bigger the road, the more attractive it is for drivers, which means more drivers, which means congestion. Highways are the If You Give a Mouse a Cookie of infrastructure. Often this law is called induced demand, basically, “if you build it, they will come.” It holds true for all different road types, all over the world. Adding lanes to 380 won’t decrease congestion. Sorry, commuters. It’s a law.

What about accidents? Will widening 380 decrease the number of accidents?  It will certainly make some accidents less awful for commuters, if two lanes can be kept open instead of one (except you’ll still be funnelling more traffic into those two lanes). Spending $170 million to be less inconvenienced at the violent deaths of others is morbid but rational. There are some things that can be done to make 380 safer, like replacing the dangerous cloverleaf interchange between I-380 and I-80. Which is already part of the plan. Mostly the interstate is well designed. It’s not the design of the interstate that is leading to crashes, it’s drivers. More drivers means more crashes.

Right now the only way to travel between Iowa City, Cedar Rapids and points inbetween is with a car. We can pour all the money we want into making it easier to do this, but either we’ll always run into the same issues, or cars will start driving themselves and technology will solve the problem. There’s no way to reduce congestion on 380 as long as the economy is healthy and our region is growing.

What about other options? The Cedar Rapids and Iowa City Railway, better known as CRANDIC, is doing it’s once a decade feasibility study into passenger rail in the corridor. There’s already a plan for intercity bus lines. You could even bike! The same research that shows the fundamental law of traffic congestion says that public transit isn’t a way out. All the people who opt for public transit will be replaced with new drivers. Roads have a natural level of congestion. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t invest in public transit, it just means that it’s not a solution to congestion. Spending money on better intercity transit rather than expanding 380 is a choice worth exploring economically and politically.

In 2006, when CRANDIC last did a feasibility study about passenger rail, they cited high costs and low demands as reasons why passenger rail wasn’t yet feasible in the corridor. The experience of other cities shows that it’s very tricky to predict rail ridership, good or bad, before the introduction of passenger rail. It’s very unlikely costs have come down in ten years (inflation!). Building out a good passenger rail system is going to cost more upfront than expanding 380. How much are we going to spend on each over the next sixty years is a better question. What’s the lifetime cost of a good rail system compared to a highway? In the longview rail might be a smart way to spend our money. Rail and highway expansion can be drivers of private investment, in general rail provides better bang for the buck for cities at generating private investment. We’re not going to miss out on economic growth if we build rail instead of expanding I-380, it’s just going to look different than the kind of growth that highway expansion drives.

Widening 380 won’t reduce congestion, and it’s unlikely it will reduce traffic accidents. Knowing that we need to ask ourselves, is it still worth the cost? Or should we get serious about looking into alternatives? Maybe it’s time to take a serious look at passenger rail?