What's the traffic outlook on northeast Indiana's Road to One Million?

Traffic engineering is both an art and a science.

Because it is a dynamic and evolving endeavor, planning and policies set in motion years ago don’t always account for new construction and population growth.

The combination of more people and buildings in an area means more vehicles on the road. In turn, road congestion affects a place's quality of life, safety, and even its environment. 

To cope with these challenges, municipalities like Fort Wayne, often look to a perceived solution in widening the roads to accommodate growth. The more residents they attract, the bigger the freeways get. The problem is, widening roads creates a problem in and of itself, as one expert at the University of Wisconsin-Madison posits in a statement

“When we add capacity, we induce more driving,” says Eric Sundquist, managing director of the State Smart Transportation Initiative (SSTI), a transportation think tank housed at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “So there’s sort of a vicious cycle: We widen roads, people drive more; we widen roads, people drive more.”

Alec Johnson believes cities need to think beyond cars when it comes to road design. Alec Johnson, a landscape architect and Fort Wayne resident, knows this firsthand. He’s had a personal interest in city planning and traffic engineering for some time.

Moving to Fort Wayne over a decade ago opened his eyes to how decisions made long ago about city infrastructure are having real consequences today. 

“I think the thing that first struck me was when we moved here, we lived up in Huntertown, on Cedar Canyons (Road),” he says. “So my commute into work downtown was down Lima Road. I had that drive (on Lima) for a few years, and then they widened my road for a year. I  took backroads (to work), and honestly, (I found it to be) the same amount of time (as the Lima Road route).”

So in his mind, the project didn’t yield the intended results of reducing congestion, and that may not be the exception to the rule in Fort Wayne and beyond.

Since then, he’s put in the time to research case studies in other cities, and he’s come to a similar conclusion as Sundquist.

“Essentially, what happens is, you widen the road... more people start using that road, and it fills up immediately,” Johnson says. 

He cites the Los Angeles’ freeway system as one glaring example. 

“(E)ight lanes isn't enough,” he says. “So it just seems like, we just keep using this same old pattern of development and this idea of transportation planning that really isn't effective. It's not cost-effective, and it makes people miserable. So I often just wonder: What's the better way?”

For the sake of comparison, traffic flow on Fort Wayne's roads is currently manageable, according to one expert with the city. 

"Fort Wayne has its share of road congestion, but it fairs quite well compared to other comparable cities," says Patrick Zaharako, city engineer. "Public Works partners with the Northeastern Indiana Regional Coordinating Council (NIRCC) to do traffic counts, traffic studies, and signal warrants to see where improvements are needed to alleviate the worst of the congestion areas."

While Johnson is quick to give props to the city’s engineering department, he also believes Fort Wayne is poised for greater things in the future. He says downtown development, particularly the Riverfront project, represents momentum along with the region's Road to One Million initiative.

In the short-term, this vision outlines a goal of 38 regional development projects in the 11 counties of northeast Indiana totaling $400 million in quality of place investments. Over the next ten years, it entails more than 70 projects and $1.5 billion in public and private investment.

To keep pace and accommodate this projected growth, Johnson says something’s got to give. 

“Right now is the perfect time to start planning for that, and then figure out: What does the system look like?"  he says. "Is there a way to scale it so that it provides for the needs right now? Can we build with the ability to expand (so that) as we move into the future and the population grows, the city’s (infrastructure) grows?”

Read more articles by Lauren Caggiano.

Lauren Caggiano is a Fort Wayne-based writer. A 2007 graduate of the University of Dayton, she returned to Northeast Indiana to pursue a career. In the past 12 years she has worked in journalism, public relations, marketing, and digital media. She currently writes for several local, regional, and national publications.
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