Widen I-235? Register article prompts debate

Good afternoon, readers.

A favorite line of DART General Manager Brad Miller’s is, “Decreasing congestion by widening roads is like trying to lose weight by buying a bigger belt.”

You can see that sentiment on full display — among other, counter opinions — in the online chatter following today’s article on desmoinesregister.com that highlights the increasing congestion along Interstate 235 just three years after its $429 million reconstruction. Reporter William Petroski reports that the Iowa Department of Transportation is now “seriously considering” widening the stretch between 63rd and 73rd from three to four lanes. The story does not include a cost estimate.

Click here for the full story.

DART gets a mention in the story for its ridership, which was down in fiscal year 2010 compared to fiscal year 2009 but was still the third highest year since 1984. You can attribute that one-year decline, of 11 percent to 4.5 million annual rides, to three primary factors: gas prices falling from record highs, which had caused a spike in ridership; to the construction of new parking ramps downtown, causing ridership on the LINK shuttle to and from the Center Street Park and Ride to drop (the service is being scaled back in response); and the service cuts in April.

What this shows is that many people choose between public transit and personal automobiles based on factors of cost and convenience. The easier a city makes it to drive to work — be it through private parking garages or publicly funded highway expansions — the more likely people are to choose that option, perpetuating congestion.

Similarly, the use of public transit directly correlates to convenience — that is to say, to the level of service. Cut service and transit ridership drops. Expand service and the use of public transit grows, easing congestion.

DART Commissioner Christine Hensley was quoted in the Register article questioning whether widening I-235 was the best way to spend taxpayer dollars.

Des Moines City Councilwoman Christine Hensley, who served on a steering committee that oversaw the freeway reconstruction project, lives adjacent to I-235 and can watch freeway traffic through a solarium in her home. She said she’s been caught in the traffic bottleneck between 63rd Street and 73rd Street a couple of times. But she still believes local officials made the right choice in supporting a “balanced growth build” that limited the size of the freeway reconstruction project.

“I don’t think that we are at the point where we should be spending money” to construct a fourth lane in each direction on the freeway in Windsor Heights and West Des Moines, Hensley said. She said she would prefer to use road money to improve other area streets and highways, and to focus on boosting public transit ridership.

It should go without saying that DART’s long-term goal is to expand service so it’s convenient to more people to commute by transit instead of in their personal vehicles, although these things don’t happen overnight. The DART Forward 2035 planning study, when completed in late 2011, will give local and state officials a road map for how best to add service in order to grow ridership.