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Transportation Part ii: Trends in Highway Use

by Edwin W. Hauser, J. Dennis Rash, Sherry M. Elmes, and Nicholas J. Swartz, 2005.
Reprinted with permission from The North Carolina Atlas Revisited. Managing editor: Alfred W. Stuart.
Updated by Kurt Brenneman, Government & Heritage Library, 2011.

Transportation topics: Introduction | Highway use | Public transportation | Highway conditions | Water transportation | Air and rail travel | Projected future innovations

North Carolina is one of a handful of states that have no county highway departments. Those roadways in about 41 of the states that are maintained by county highway departments are instead a part of the state-maintained system in the Tarheel State, where they are called “secondary roads.” The North Carolina Highway Department (North Carolina Department of Transportation) took over all county roads in the 1930s, in order to have greater leverage with vendors and suppliers of the materials necessary to more economically build and maintain highways. 

Currently, with about 80,000 miles of state-owned and maintained highways, North Carolina has one of the two largest state-owned and maintained highway systems in the country. In North Carolina, municipalities maintain an additional 21,000 miles of city streets, and combining these two administrative systems with highways maintained by other agencies such as the National Park Service or the U.S. Forest Service, the state contains approximately 105,000 miles of roads and highways. Ferry crossings of several rivers and sounds connect links of the highway system in many coastal counties. Ferries are operated by the State Ferry Division, also in the North Carolina Department of Transportation. The state highway system is shown in Figure 1.

One statistic used frequently as a measure of highway usage is Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT), usually expressed on a daily or annual basis. VMT is not an actual measure, however. Daily VMTs on individual segments of both state-maintained highways and municipal streets are typically estimated by periodic or continuous traffic counts. On an annual basis, a statewide estimate of VMT for each county is a combination of these site-specific traffic counts and an estimate developed by the North Carolina Department of Revenue based on tax collections from motor vehicle fuel sales; the size and composition of the vehicle fleets, both public and private; and averages of miles per gallon for various types of vehicles. Trends in VMT on individual highway segments, by county, and for the state as a whole, are therefore useful as a measure of the growth of highway travel over time. 

Comparing VMT for 2003 and 2007 (Figures 2 and 3), most counties in the state experienced slight percentage increases in the four-year period (Figure 4), though thirteen counties experienced decreases. Note that in Figures 2 and 3, miles traveled are shown as units of 100 Million Vehicle Miles Traveled (or 100 MVMT). For example, 2003 data (Figure 2) show that Alamance County experienced between 6.0 and 16.99 hundred MVMT that year. The actual estimate that Alamance County experienced was 14.43 hundred MVMT traveled in 2003. In 2007, Alamance County had 15.81 hundred MVMT, and the legend shows, again, between 6.0 and 16.99 hundred MVMT. Figure 4 shows that county with a zero and 9.99 percent increase from 2003 to 2007; the actual percent change was 9.56 percent.   

Only two of the state’s one hundred counties experienced a 30 percent or more increase in VMT during this eight-year period. Both of these counties with larger increases were in the coastal region. While an additional 35 counties experienced between 10 and 30 percent change in MVMT between 2003 and 2007, fifty counties experienced less than a 10 percent increase. Overall, the increases suggest both good news and not so good. On the positive side, a healthy economy is reflected in these numbers. On the other hand, the highway system, particularly in the larger urban areas, is experiencing increasing congestion, increasing commuting time, accompanying traffic safety issues, air and water quality issues, and higher public demand for highway improvements. Thirteen counties experienced a decrease, which may reflect a slow economy in these counties.

Figure 1. State Highway System

NC Highway System map

Figure 2. Vehicle Miles Traveled, 2003

Vehicle Miles traveled per county, 2003

Figure 3. Vehicle Miles Traveled, 2007

Vehicle miles traveled, 2007

Figure 4. Percent Change in Vehicle Miles Traveled, from 2003 to 2007

Vehicle Miles Traveled, Percentage change per county, 2003-2007

One might obtain more insight into the cause of increases and decreases in Vehicle Miles Traveled by comparing counties in Figure 4 with Figures 4a and 4b in the NC Atlas web site chapter on Population.

Table 1. North Carolina Public Road Length, Miles by Functional System

 

2004

2005

2006

2007

2008

2009

Rural and Urban Miles

102,666

103,128

103,500

104,412

105,104

105,317

Rural

77,986

71,016

71,190

71,306

71,675

69,450

Interstate

660

521

521

542

542

530

Other Principal Arterial

2,198

1,983

2,001

1,962

1,949

1,874

Minor Arterial

2,198

1,983

2,001

2,608

2,598

2,666

Major Collector

8,702

7,933

7,933

7,993

8,014

8,096

Minor Collector

7,331

6,741

6,717

6,728

6,720

6,557

Local

56,097

51,176

51,366

51,473

51,852

49.723

Urban

24,680

31,112

32,310

33,106

33,429

35,867

Interstate

386

562

561

567

583

610

Other Freeways and Expressways

307

385

388

398

428

493

Other Principal Arterial

1,350

1,758

1,782

1,775

1,775

1,821

Minor Arterial

2,388

3,115

3,137

3,164

3,132

3,194

Collector

1,626

2,783

2,817

2,880

2,886

2,734

Local

18,623

23,509

23,625

24,322

24,625

35,867

Source: Highway Statistics Series, Federal Highway Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation, 2004-2009.

As Table 1 indicates, between 2004 and 2009, total rural and urban public road length increased by 2,651 miles. While this is a rather large number, on the statewide scale, this equates to an insignificant increase in actual highway mileage inventory during any given year. The largest increase in new roadway mileage was additional “local” roads on the state’s urban system. A few miles of Interstate highways were added in some of the years, and these small increases in the centerline miles of major highways has added significant congestion relief to local residents and commuters. These miles increased do not include additional lane miles, such as when two-lane highways are widened to three, four, or five lanes. Mileage shown in Table 1 reflects roads, streets, and highways maintained by all agencies (state, municipal, Federal park and forest roads, etc.).

Table 2 illustrates that the majority of the state’s public roads are owned by the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT), representing 75.6% of the state’s total. Municipalities within the state own and maintain another 20.4% of the state’s total. 

Table 2. North Carolina Street and Highway Miles by Ownership: 2008

 

National Highway System

Other Federal Aid Highway

Nonfederal Highway

Total

Total

3,906

18,007

83,190

105,103

NCDOT

3,903

16,774

58,790

79,466

Counties

0

0

0

0

Municipalities

2

940

20,480

21,422

Other Jurisdictions*

0

0

748

748

Federal Agencies**

1

294

3,172

3,467

*includes state park, state toll, other state agency, other local agency, and roadways not identified by ownership

**roadways in federal parks, forests, and reservations that are not part of the state and local highway systems

Source: Highway Statistics Series, Federal Highway Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation, 2008.

 

Table 3.  Transportation-related Growth Measures (1990-2008)

Item

1990

2000

2008

% Change from 1990

Total Road Miles Under State Control

77,646

78,267

79,466

2.3

Vehicle Registrations (millions)

5.162

6.222

6.249

21.0

Licensed Drivers (millions)

4.551

5.690

6.457

41.9

Vehicle Miles of Travel (billions)

62.751

89.504

101.712

62.1

Fuel Consumption (billions of gallons)

3.911

5.179

5.788

48.0

State Fuel Tax Rate:

 

 

 

 

Gasoline and Diesel (cents per gallon)       

21.5

22.0

30.15

40.2

Total Receipts for State Highways ($billions)

1.424

2.619

3.853

170.6

Total Disbursements for State Highways ($billions)

1.364

2.621

3.584

162.8

Source:  Highway Statistics Series, Federal Highway Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation, 2000 and 2008.

Table 3 relates various growth measures from 1990 through 2008 (the latest year that all these measures are commonly available). Note that the number of licensed drivers and VMT increased at much higher rates than did vehicle registrations. Table 4 and Figure 5 illustrate a one-year “snapshot” of the number of vehicles by type that were registered in the state in the year 2008. 

Table 4. North Carolina and US Motor Vehicle Registrations, 2008

Motor Vehicle Type

Private and Commercial

Publicly Owned

North Carolina Total

US Total

Automobiles

3,539,487

32,790

3,572,277

137,079,843

Buses

10,592

24,312

34,904

843,308

Trucks

2,588,207

53,441

2,641,648

110,241,587

     Light

2,368,685

n/a

2,368,685

99,570,332

     Farm

71,240

n/a

71,240

1,908,943

     Tractors

51,022

n/a

51,022

1,930,378

Motorcycles

121,598

361

121,959

7,752,926

     TOTAL

8,750,831

110,904

8,861,735

359,327,317

Source: Highway Statistics Series, Federal Highway Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation, 2008.

Figure 5. NC Motor Vehicles as Percent of US, 2008

NC Motor vehicle types as percent of US, 2008

 

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