CDOT’s Blind Spot — Wider Highways and New Tech Won’t Cure Congestion

Photo: Jared Tarbell/Flickr
Photo: Jared Tarbell/Flickr

The Colorado Department of Transportation has two strategies for dealing with traffic congestion and pollution: wider roads and high-tech vehicles. If it doesn’t disrupt people traveling long distances in cars, CDOT will sink resources into it.

Take the I-70 project in north Denver, where CDOT plans to spend more than a billion dollars in the name of congestion relief while neighborhood residents fear more harmful traffic emissions in an area already disproportionately affected by pollution.

Not to worry, CDOT Executive Shailen Bhatt told north Denver residents during a public meeting last month, because more lanes will actually improve air quality!

CDOT Executive Director Shailen Bhatt. Photo: David Sachs
CDOT Executive Director Shailen Bhatt. Photo: David Sachs

“There are 200,000 vehicles a day that are on that highway right now,” Bhatt said. “Part of the air quality issues that are arising here is because traffic is at a standstill for much of the day on this highway.”

This is a statement straight out of the 1960s, when the interstate system was new and the vicious cycle of road widening and traffic generation wasn’t well understood. Since that time, mountains of evidence have accumulated proving that widening congested roads leads people to drive more.

Other state DOTs, most notably in California, have admitted that wider highways don’t fix congestion — they generate more traffic. But to CDOT, apparently, the principle of induced demand just doesn’t apply to I-70, even though it perfectly describes what happened on I-25.

At the same time, Bhatt is betting on CDOT’s RoadX initiative to deliver what the agency describes as “technology-enabled congestion relief and safety improvements.”

If CDOT is serious about technology delivering congestion relief, though, why are projects like the I-70 widening, which will scar north Denver for generations, even necessary?

The fact is that road expansion is a discredited tactic, and high-tech fixes are purely speculative at this point. These are the strategies of an agency that refuses to face up to the futility of car-based solutions to traffic congestion.

So what would lead to cut traffic in Denver? The key is to reduce car travel, not enable more driving.

Recent research from the State Smart Transportation Initiative (SSTI) isolated six factors that affect how much people drive. Homes clustered together with other uses, walkable street grids, good sidewalks and convenient access to transit — these are the building blocks of a low-traffic city.

CDOT could help reduce the traffic burden in Denver neighborhoods by replacing I-70 with a surface boulevard. That would set the stage for many of the strategies identified by SSTI.

A wider highway will do the opposite — entrench car travel at the expense of walking, biking, and transit.

  • TakeFive

    I’ve yet to find the state DOT rascal that promises congestion-free freeways (forever) although I haven’t checked into Montana. Of course highway expansion induces more traffic; they don’t build the dang lanes just to sit there looking pretty. It’s all about capacity and those extra lanes can relieve congestion on nearby arterial streets.

    Speaking of T-REX, if you’ll recall the 2000’s, growth in Denver was muted, especially in the 1st half of the decade. If you are aware of the growth over the last half-dozen years then is it any wonder the difference. Consider how much worse it would be if it were not for T-REX.

    • Anthony

      Congestion levels on I-25 in the TREX corridor reached pre-congestion levels two years after completion, so by 2008, and has continued to increase to the point where in 2012 (the beginning of that growth period you refer to) congestion was actually as bad as it was during the beginning of construction.
      2008 coincidentally is when VMT across the country started to dip.

  • JustJake

    CDOT has a large budget and staff of professionals with experience. This author has a blog and a agenda.

    Hmm… whose position has more credibility?

  • JerryG

    I am not saying your position is flawed, you are not accounting for the fact that CDOT states they are “only” adding toll lanes. There is some research that indicates toll lanes do not induce demand. Now CDOT is doing more than just adding toll lanes and that needs to be addressed, along with the number of toll lanes.

    • Anthony

      I agree it’s important to have the I-70 discussion with the concept that additional capacity will be in the form of HOT lanes. And if the project were replacing existing lanes with HOT (or straight tolled) lanes, then usage would remain static or decrease. However, since they’re being built in the form of additional lanes, there will be additional usage, though it will be less than if left un-tolled. So by tolling the extra two lanes, instead of seeing 333,000 vehicles per day on I-70, we’ll likely see closer to 250 or 266k compared to today’s 200k. Some new drivers will be attracted to I-70 because they no longer have to worry about the congestion (if it’s worth the cost to them to pay the toll or find carpool partners), and some will backfill the space left in the “free” lanes by people who move from those lanes to the HOT lanes.

  • Anthony

    Odd that Mr. Bhatt is saying pollution will be improved when the EIS states otherwise.

    According to the Draft Air Quality Conformity Determination and NEBA Comparative Analysis, the “No Action” alternative models 153.396 micrograms per cubic meter of PM10 at I-70 and I-25 interchange, whereas the “Preferred Alternative” models 154.196 (p.7). At I-70 and I-225, the discrepancy is more pronounced, showing 141.732 for the “No Action” and 145.285 for the “Preferred Alternative.”

    His position would be defensible (yet misguided) if he argued the pollution impacts would be negligible or minimal, but he implies, according to your third paragraph, that this project will improve air quality. That’s demonstrably untrue.

    Source: http://i-70east.com/AirQuality/I-70EastEIS_DraftAirQuality.pdf

    • TakeFive

      By the time statistics are published they’re outdated. BTW, buses have been some of the worst polluters so ban the bus? You ignore the evolution of propulsions tech. Even Seattle’s newer RapidRide buses are now diesel-electric hybrid and it makes a Yuge difference.

      FWIW although the “No Action” alternative is used as a baseline it’s not even an option.

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