Widening 168th Street

The city of Omaha is planning to widen 168th Street from three lanes to four and adding a median. The stated goals of this project are to enhance safety, to increase capacity, and to reduce traffic congestion. While these may sound like worthwhile goals, only one (to increase capacity) will be realized, and this at the expense of the other two goals. So let’s consider this goal first.

As noted above 168th street is currently three lanes, with the center lane used for turning. Effectively, that means that the through traffic is two lanes. Increasing to four lanes sounds like it will double the throughput potential, and it may. But for how much of the day is that increased throughput required? While I haven’t seen the study, I suspect that it will only be during rush hours: one direction in the morning and the other direction in the evening as commuters return to their homes. This means that for the majority of the day, the increased width of 168th Street will remain empty and unused.

How will this enhance safety (or will it?) For pedestrians who are crossing the road, there is now an additional lane, plus the width of the median to cross. Which means they’ll be having to hustle a bit more to get across. They’ll also have another lane to watch for oncoming traffic. Suffice to say, I don’t see how those who walk are made safer.

What about those in cars? They may be safer for a time (more on that in a bit,) what with more room on the road. But, again, in the less than long term, I don’t think this will bear out either. This brings us to congestion. Conventional wisdom says if you want to relieve congestion, widen the road. The reality, however, is that induced demand will set in and in a much shorter time than expected, the roadway will be just as crowded as before the widening. And with the return of the congestion, the same safety issues return for the motorist in his four wheeled metal box, possibly multiplied since there are now more cars surrounding the driver.

One part of the project I have no issue with is the enhanced sidepaths. These will allow pedestrians and cyclist to travel in the same directions of the road more safely than if they were to share the road. As noted above, this safety only lasts until they try crossing the road.

There are many infrastructure needs in Omaha. A fair number of our roads, bridges, and sidewalks are in need of repair. Is spending the money on widening 168th Street really the best use of limited transportation funds?

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