Nearly 4,000 miles of road in the Commonwealth need significant repairs. That’s according to the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet. In late June, the agency released a list of transportation priorities for its next six-year Highway Plan.
Number one on that list: widening a corridor of Louisville’s Gene Snyder Freeway.
If you take I-265 in the morning and evening, you’ve been in traffic. The state transportation cabinet wants to widen the Gene Snyder to six lanes between Taylorsville Road and I-71.
“The thousands of motorists who drive there every day are going to see the benefit,” said Andrea Clifford, Louisville district public information officer with the cabinet. “There are significant backups during the morning and afternoon commutes on that route.”
As of now, none of the projects on the list are guaranteed to happen; they’re only recommendations. But if they’re all included in the state’s six-year highway plan, the price tag of widening the Gene Snyder would be $123 million.
In an emailed statement, Naitore Djigbenou with the transportation cabinet said: “Widening highways increases access to an area, and alleviating traffic can be a benefit of that. Regarding the Gene Synder [Freeway], adding more lanes increases safety in sections where there is weaving.”
Although it tops the state’s list of road priorities, some transportation experts have long said spending money to widen highways to alleviate congestion just doesn’t work.
“It actually backfires pretty badly,” said Sarah Kaufman, assistant director at NYU’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management.
She said what happens is that lanes are added, and it’s great for a while, but eventually the demand catches up.
“And the congestion and the slower traffic will resume once again, but this time in more lanes of traffic,” said Kaufman.
And Kaufman said there are other negative effects of highway expansion.
“One issue with it is that there’s urban sprawl being created and perpetuated by having more highway space,” she said.
Kaufman said commuters move farther away from the city center when more highway space is created. “But it catches up when the highway gets to a choke point,” she said.
Despite some negative effects, highway expansion is a nationally favored solution to alleviating congestion.
“A good part of the reason that highway expansion is so popular in the United States is because our federal funding for it is pretty high,” said Kaufman.
The federal government spends more money on highways than public transportation, Kaufman said. Still, she said it’s not enough to keep every highway and road up to date, so they have to prioritize which roads and highways to invest in.
Besides potentially alleviating traffic congestion, adding more lanes could also benefit the environment. Andrea Clifford with the transportation cabinet said with fewer vehicles idling in traffic, there would presumably be less exhaust in the air, adding to the air quality. That’s if traffic diminished.
Another benefit of highway expansion is the potential for economic development. Companies are more likely to locate in an area where there’s increased connectivity.
“To say that you’re going to add a lane to the Snyder certainly will help today’s situation,” said Larry Chaney, director of transportation at Kentuckiana Regional Planning and Development Agency. “Will it help tomorrow? We really don’t know.”
He said there are things you can do if you really want to alleviate traffic, which include congestion pricing, increasing parking costs in downtown Louisville and building out public transit.
“As could adding [highway] lanes,” he said. “It all sort of needs to work together.”
A comprehensive transportation plan focuses on mobility and connectivity for everyone, not just alleviating congestion for those with access to vehicles. But even with good roads, wider highways, public transportation and millions of dollars to invest, traffic at certain times of the day may be unavoidable.
The bottom line, said Chaney, is if you have a growing economy and good population growth, traffic is inevitable — and more and wider highways are only part of the solution.