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The road that's wider isn't always better
From the editor
Jeff Whitten NEW
Jeff Whitten is managing editor of the Bryan County News. - photo by File photo

Jan. 26, 2018. Mark that date on your calendar, stick the calendar in a drawer somewhere and wait about a decade.

Then decide whether the announcement made multiple times that particular Friday — you know, that the widening of Highway 144 is really going to get started in the spring of 2018 — was good or not.

Many are touting it as a great thing right now. Politicians, predictably, are practically falling all over themselves to get it on the credit for it, particularly at the state level. Poor old commuters stuck in traffic purgatory are hoping for whatever relief comes this way, so they see anything as a possible fix.

In the meantime, one elected official who seems elated about the widening of 144 once told me off record that widening roads doesn’t solve traffic problems, it creates more traffic. Since that particular conversation was off record, I’ll leave it at that and not name names.

But from personal experience, it seems to me he was right the first time.

Highway 21, which runs through Effingham County into Chatham and Savannah, is an example of how turning a state highway from two to four lanes works to solve traffic problems.

It was congested before. It’s more congested now, particularly when left-lane loafers decide to go 50 mph from Port Wentworth to Clyo during rush hour.

Mostly, it’s four frequently exasperating lanes of bumper-to-bumper cars and pickups and, if that’s not enough, loads of semis going to and from the ports.

Traffic can and does back up in both directions for miles every morning and afternoon, and sometimes as late as 10 p.m. And that’s despite the widely ballyhooed diverging diamond at the Port Wentworth exit.

I know this because I drive it twice every day. I know it too because my house is about a mile away, and the roar of traffic from Highway 21 is such a constant that I think one possible epitaph for my tombstone goes something like this:

"When everything else was said and done, he hated the roar of Highway 21."

I know that it shouldn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why the four-laning of 21 didn’t help commuters.

In short, road construction wasn’t the only thing going on during the widening of Highway 21.

Subdivisions and apartment complexes sprang up along it, particularly in that little stretch of west Chatham County known as "north Port Wentworth" and that, coupled with continuing growth in Effingham, just added more and more and more vehicles to the mix.

A new school and shopping center were built alongside 21, adding an additional stop light along the route (what kind of evil mind thinks up widening highways you have to put stoplights on?).

And, for what it’s worth, just about every inch of undeveloped land left along 21 in West Chatham and that particular stretch of Effingham is up for grabs, and there are a few projects in the works that could add even more big trucks to the mix.

Highway 144 is a different beast, of sorts, although the similarities are, well, similar. Mainly, there’s a lot of development going on in South Bryan and the number of vehicles that will be added to the mix will go up.

With 144 widening, that pace of development will likely increase because, well, that’s how it tends to work. I sometimes suspect these infrastructure "improvements" aren’t necessarily made to help regular folks, but rather to further economic growth for those who need such infrastructure to grow whatever it is they’re into.

In fact, and I hope I’m wrong, I strongly suspect if you want a sense of what the widened Highway 144 will be east of Harris Trail will be like, you only have to look west of Harris Trail where 144 is currently four lanes.

And we all know how much fun driving west of Harris Trail is.

It’s one big suicide lane, a case of too many people in too many cars going in too many different directions in too limited a space with not enough blinkers.

There is one possible way that the widening of 144 could benefit commuters, but it’s not likely to happen. It requires we take those leaders who say "infrastructure before development" at their word and hold them to it.

That means reversing years of development before infrastructure, and the only way I can think of to do that is to stop development until infrastructure catches up.

So, let’s come back in a decade and see where we are. Just know the road that’s wider isn’t always better.

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