Grant Frazier: Bigger highways don’t fix traffic. Why won’t we stop building them?

A wider I-15 will just attract more dirty, dangerous cars

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Inversion conditions deteriorate air quality near Farmington as the FrontRunner train and highway traffic move along the I-15 corridor on Friday Dec. 3, 2021.

The Utah Department of Transportation recently unveiled its plan to spend $1.6 billion to expand the I-15 between Farmington and Salt Lake City in order to reduce congestion on the highway. This expansion would turn the stretch of road into either an 18- or 20-lane-wide beast.

As of yet, we have no idea how many businesses and homes would be leveled to accomplish this construction, and Gov. Spencer Cox’s recent comment that he’s “hopeful” homes won’t be demolished doesn’t do much to assuage concerns. What we do know, however, is this: Adding more lanes does not fix traffic.

The principle by which we know this is called “induced demand,” and it’s been studied extensively. When a new lane is added to a given highway, traffic temporarily improves. However, this reduced traffic leads to drivers being less careful about when they drive. ”Since there’s a new lane, it’s no big deal to drive during rush hour anymore.”

The result is that more individuals opt to drive than before, and inevitably, the traffic becomes just as bad, if not worse, than it was prior to expansion. Not to mention the fact that more drivers means more pollution, contributing to our already dire smog situation in the Salt Lake Valley.

If we want to solve our traffic woes, then we need to get serious about alternative methods of transportation. This $1.6 billion would undoubtedly be better spent on improving the FrontRunner service, local bus network reliability and investing in more innovative streetcar projects like the newly operational S-line.

A new study by the National Bureau of Economic Research proves what already makes sense intuitively: When public transit operates along heavy transit corridors, it provides “[congestion] benefits … much larger than previously believed.”

The Utah Transit Authority receives roughly 65% of its annual revenue from sales tax in the districts it serves — accounting for $365 million in 2021. The rest of its budget comes from fare revenue, federal grants and a handful of smaller sources. UTA operates a commuter rail line that stretches 89 miles, extensive bus networks in multiple municipalities, light rails across Salt Lake County and a streetcar in Sugar House, largely funded through a sales tax, which makes its year-over-year budget unreliable and subject to economic uncertainty.

This network operates at a fraction of the cost of the proposed lane expansion — which will stretch for a measly 17 miles across our already-polluted Salt Lake Valley. And of course, once the road is built, we’ll continue paying for it in the form of maintenance for years to come.

We know that when transit is built effectively, it creates measurable impacts in people’s lives. Studies show that, as the length of your car commute increases, so does the risk of high blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes and even divorce. This effect is not observed among transit riders — who get more physical activity from regular 5-10 minute walks and don’t have to deal with the psycho-physical stress that road rage causes on the human body.

Of course, there’s also the fact that cars are a huge economic sink, even prior to becoming deeply unaffordable in the midst of the pandemic. The average American sinks over $9,000 into their cars annually in the form of maintenance, gas, insurance and payments.

Although a new lane may sound nice, we have to reckon with the fact that new lanes will never fix traffic. They just put more cars on the road, more smog in our air and more burden on taxpayers to account for their never-ending construction and maintenance.

Grant Frazier

Grant Frazier is an urban policy enthusiast living in Provo. He recently graduated from Brigham Young University with a bachelor’s degree in entrepreneurial management and can be found on Twitter @gantisdant.