The Future of NC: The road ahead

 In Features, February 2016

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Finally, they’ve reached here, a few miles outside Windsor. On damp mornings like this, mist rises from the Cashie River where earthmovers are pushing the new Interstate 44 through soybean fields toward Elizabeth City. Eleven years ago, in 2015, Pat McCrory, then governor, described this as one of his transportation priorities, to connect a neglected region of the state to Raleigh in the west and to carry its abundant raw goods such as forest and agricultural products northeast to the global ports of the Virginia Tidewater area.

Elsewhere, transportation in 2026 has a radically different, urban hue. Thousands ride newly completed segments of a commuter train, whose 37-mile route from Garner through Raleigh to Durham was part of a $2.3 billion regional transit plan advanced by local leaders in 2016. In Charlotte, which launched the state’s first commuter-rail system in 1998, riders ply a network that spans Mecklenburg County from neighboring Iredell and Cabarrus counties.

Those hypotheticals are reality-based, but probably too rosy, say experts such as N.C. Secretary of Transportation Nick Tennyson. “It’s possible,” he says, that the Research Triangle might have commuter trains in a decade, “but from my experiences working with railroads, that would be lightning speed.” Nevertheless, from Asheville to Ocracoke, North Carolina is coming to grips with its transportation future and pouring billions into highway construction, transit systems, ports, regional airports and other features. The question in 2026 will be, was it too little, too late?

“If we look at where we’re headed right now, we’re going to be drowning in traffic, endless congestion and extremely frustrated people,” says Michael Gallis, whose Charlotte-based firm, Michael Gallis & Associates, has completed transportation and urban-development plans in the United States and Canada.

Gallis blames public reluctance to pay for transportation, along with timid politicians unwilling to impose unpopular measures such as tolls and user fees. The state should consider transportation a utility-like service and fund it from general coffers instead of transportation-specific sources such as gas taxes, he says. “Twenty years ago, the world came to America to see what we had. Nobody comes anymore. Our airports, high-speed rail, interstate system  are all vastly out of date.”

State officials don’t minimize 2026’s challenges. “Anybody who’s close to all this has got to be concerned,” says Ned Curran, a Charlotte developer who chairs the N.C. Board of Transportation. “We can’t just keep building highways forever.” Still, highway construction and maintenance will continue to dominate transportation spending, though alternatives such as passenger rail will gain traction. About three-quarters of the state’s $4.4 billion 2015 transportation budget went to roads and maintenance. “The problem is, we have concentrated demand for limited infrastructure,” Curran says. In layman’s terms, that’s rush-hour traffic. “It’s hard to keep up, and unfortunately, we haven’t. I don’t see any miracle cure in the next 10 years that’ll bring us up to speed.”

Powering the 2026 transportation treadmill will be more people and the state’s expansion as a financial-industry center and powerhouse of high technology and skilled manufacturing, including trains and planes. Wilmington’s Vertex Railcar Corp., for instance, expects to produce 8,000 rail cars this year, and Tennyson cites Honda Aircraft Co.’s new, 1,700-employee Greensboro plant — it’s part of a flourishing, 6,000-worker Triad aviation industry — where it makes the compact $4.8 million HondaJet.

Most of all, future transportation needs reflect population growth. The N.C. Office of State Budget and Management estimates 11.2 million people will live in the state in 2026, up from 10.6 million in late 2015. A recent Wake County transit plan notes that 63 new residents arrive there daily. The plan concluded, “congestion of our roads is worsening, even as additional money is spent” to expand them. 

Current efforts to keep pace financially are flagging. Last summer, lawmakers stripped about $1 billion that McCrory sought for highway projects in a statewide bond referendum. Despite generally broad acceptance of the 18.8-mile Triangle Expressway toll road, opened in 2012, other efforts to launch toll roads and managed-traffic lanes encounter furious opposition. In Mecklenburg, a 26-mile managed-lane project along Interstate 77 from Charlotte to Mooresville in Iredell County led to the defeat of Huntersville’s mayor and is generating ballot-box threats to McCrory and other politicians who have supported the $647 million venture, led by Spain’s Ferrovial SA. Construction started in December, but opponents remain vocal. Drivers would pay round-trip fares of as much as $20 at peak times to hustle along less-congested high-speed lanes, while nonpayers stew in conventional paths.

More efficient cars also may pose a threat to improved highways. By 2026, federal fuel economy mandates will require cars to average 54.5 miles per gallon, nearly double the current standards. Less gas use slashes the state’s largest source of transportation funding with about $1.8 billion, or 40% of the current budget, from fuel taxes. “When you go farther on a gallon, you pay less for roads,” Gallis says. But alternative funding is an administrative and political minefield. “The anti-tax mantra has become so strong, despite the fact the current gas tax is unable to support roads and that people hate congestion, there’s huge resistance to raising it.”

Curran and Tennyson see what Tennyson describes as “some mixture of user fees and public revenue.” Charging a fee based on the number of miles traveled by a vehicle is under study by a DOT subcommittee. “Without narrowing the list,” Curran says, “I can tell you it didn’t get a very warm welcome.”

Gallis and other futurists suggest technology could squeeze greater efficiency from existing highways. Self-driving cars also are expected to be safer than ones with human drivers and could reduce the number of vehicles by automated car pooling. State engineers are studying how to mark highways to be compatible with autonomous systems. The Obama administration wants to invest $4 billion over the next 10 years to speed their adoption. “The robotic world is engulfing us,” Gallis says. “There’s no question driverless cars are coming,” along with airborne drones offering delivery service.

Passenger rail systems in Raleigh, Charlotte and the Triad — and eventually eastern and western regions — will play a larger role in getting people out of cars over the next 20 years, though skeptics question the impact of more trains. Wake County is considering a $2.3 billion commuter- and light-rail plan, and Charlotte’s 2030 plan calls for a nearly 60-mile web of such links, including urban streetcars, within the city and outlying regions. Both plans have substantial political opposition, which promoters expect to abate as road congestion worsens and consumer tastes shift. They cite the battle over Charlotte’s light-rail line, which is now widely viewed as a valuable investment. “Maybe, finally, people will adapt to the environment, making decisions that reflect their values,” Tennyson says. “For example, young people moving into urban areas will be willing to give up their cars.”

None of which is to say North Carolina, which has long had the nation’s largest system of state-maintained highways, is going to roll up its roads by 2026. The question is how many major projects already planned or underway will be completed by then.

Tennyson doubts that much will be finished in the Triangle over the next decade. Improvements to the Interstate 40 corridor from Wake County to west of Durham are in early stages, “but under current funding, I don’t see that being completed.” A long-delayed outer loop around Winston-Salem will be finished, along with a new Herbert C. Bonner Bridge, which carries N.C. 12 to the Outer Banks. A $410 million, 7-mile, toll Mid-Currituck Bridge will be completed across the Currituck Sound, linking U.S. 158 to the Outer Banks and improving hurricane evacuation. The new interstate linking the outskirts of Raleigh to Norfolk, Va. — federal authorities have approved the designation — likely will be progressing.

Charlotte, though, illustrates the slow pace of transportation improvements. Last summer, the final 6-mile section of the city’s 67-mile, Interstate 485 outer loop was finished. (That leg cost $232 million.) The loop took 27 years to build, and its southern section is often bottled up at rush hour, prompting plans for toll lanes.

The ultimate answer to 2026 needs? “It’s more of everything,” Curran says, “more high-speed rail, ports, airports — regionals, and not just the majors — and more transit.” Or, perhaps, new bacon-saving technology will emerge by 2026. “There were 300,000 horses in New York City in the late 1800s, and people feared an environmental disaster because of their waste,” Curran says. “No one anticipated that 20 years later, there would be fewer than 100,000 horses and the city would have 300,000 cars.”


Free wheeling

It’s a winter morning in Cary, and the day begins. The parents work in Research Triangle Park; the children go to school, then soccer practice and karate lessons. Future family, version 2026, has two adults, two kids, one black lab and one car. But no driver.

They’re coming, autonomous vehicles. Take it from U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, the former Charlotte mayor, who says they’ll be common in a decade. Or from N.C. State University engineer Marshall Brain, who’s achieved star status as a futurist. Driverless vehicles, he predicts, will be moving North Carolinians and their goods in 10 years, potentially easing highway carnage and congestion, but also changing work and culture.

“The autonomous car and truck are both here and both are driving with us on our regular roadways today,” Brain says. Google’s egg-shaped self-driver is the best known, having racked up more than a million highway miles in test mode, but Ford, General Motors and other carmakers have experimental models and all say they’ll be rolling out of showrooms by 2025. Germany’s Audi, which has a self-driving sedan outfitted as a race car that’s competitive with top human racers, expects to market an autonomous limousine in 2017 and Tesla, a mainstream car the year after. “People might even look at them and say, ‘Heck I don’t need a car,’” Brain says. “That’s exactly what we did with cellphones. ‘Heck, I don’t need a landline anymore.’”

Brain, who created and later sold the popular website HowStuffWorks, is director of N.C. State’s engineering entrepreneurs program and an author. He’s also a father of four who owns a dog and says he won’t miss driving. He and N.C. State colleague Seth Hollar recently unveiled a plan for a transit system using small autonomous vehicles on the sprawling campus.

Driverless cars, Brain says, will change a car culture that often seems to defy logic. “The funny thing about cars is, we use them only about 5% of the time, and they sit idle 95% of the time,” he says. “They’re in our garages at night and then the parking lot at work.”

They also may help reduce 40,000 annual deaths stemming from U.S. car accidents to nearly zero. “It would be a game changer for the species,” he says. “Fact is, they don’t get into accidents because they’re so much better than humans” because they have better sensors, 360 degrees of visibility and don’t get distracted by texts or phone calls. Google’s car uses a laser sensor that takes 1.3 million readings per second.

Fleet-owned driverless vehicles could be summoned by smartphones, similar to the technology of pseudo-taxi services such as Uber and Lyft. Uber has offered to buy Tesla’s first-year production of autonomous cars. Each car may replace up to a dozen conventional vehicles. “With that scenario, you don’t necessarily need a parking lot at the office,” Brain says, freeing valuable commercial space. Nationwide, parking spaces now outnumber cars about three to one. “Parking is crazy when you sit down and think how much urban space we use for it.” A driverless car could drop off parents at work, deliver and pick up children, then reverse the sequence later, returning to its single, residential parking space.

The appeal of individual driverless vehicles might be overshadowed by their use in commercial applications such as trucking and taxi services. Driverless vehicles eliminate a major cost — the driver — and can run around the clock without rest for greater efficiency. Trucks, for example, could run more at night when traffic volume is lower. The downside: “Something like 1.5 million truck drivers could lose their jobs,” Brain says.

None of this will happen easily. While some highway planners say computer sensors allow the new cars to travel closer, packing more vehicles onto limited highway space and possibly minimizing road construction, Brain is skeptical. Highway capacity already is adequate most of the time, he says, except when thousands of workers arrive at the same place for work and then go home at the same time. “That’s not going to change by using autonomous cars,” he says.

The determining factor? Though surveys show millennials are less enamored of cars than their parents and baby boomers, Brain and others say autonomous cars face a hurdle that’s pure flesh and blood. Can they gain human trust?

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