Business and civic groups in Virginia and Maryland issued a report this month that challenges the D.C. region to decide what transportation programs are most needed to ease congestion.
This is not how governments and commuters think.
Governments have lists of transportation projects to accomplish many goals within their jurisdictions. Congestion relief is only one. Among the other goals are the creation of new travel options, economic development and neighborhood revitalization.
Commuters have lists of projects that would improve their routes to work. The lists might include fixing potholes, retiming traffic signals or adding a left-turn lane, or something slightly more elaborate, like double-decking the Capital Beltway. The lists are usually very personal.
Despite the widespread awareness that traffic congestion hurts people financially, physically and emotionally, there is no widespread discussion of a regional investment program that would set a few top priorities and get them done.
The new report was done by two business groups, the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance and the Maryland Suburban Transportation Alliance, for a regional association called the 2030 Group. The two alliances say they picked 45 transportation professionals — traffic engineers, transportation administrators, civil engineers, designers and urban planners — for interviews, and then used the results to fashion their report.
Downside: The survey aspect of the report is difficult to assess. The interviewees were selected by the business groups, the interviews were confidential and the resulting recommendations are very much in the mainstream of what business leaders have endorsed in recent years.
Upside: Just because the transportation recommendations emerge from business groups doesn’t mean the ideas are bad or unworthy of discussion. The region has taken very seriously the ideas on Metro governance put forward last year by the Greater Washington Board of Trade. The key things to take from the new report are its insistence that we need to develop a short list of projects that will have a big impact on congestion within the lifetime of today’s commuters, as well as a proposal on priorities to discuss.
A planning method
The report challenges us to define what we mean when we say we have a transportation problem and then focus on the most effective ways to address it.
“The prioritization process should focus heavily on highway and transit investments that do the most to reduce travel times/delays, reduce congestion, and improve transportation network safety and reliability,” the report concludes. And the process for making choices must be “more regional and professional and less parochial, political and ideologically driven.”
A priority list
The alliances asked each of the experts they selected to name the single most important regional transportation investment in the next 20 years. These were among the top choices cited:
l Build new Potomac River bridges.
l Preserve the Metro system.
l Create a regional network of express toll lanes and bus rapid transit lanes.
l Preserve and improve the Beltway in Maryland.
l Create new regional bypasses to the east and west.
l Upgrade Interstate 270 and develop the Corridor Cities Transitway.
l Build the Purple Line transitway in Maryland.
l Upgrade the I-66 corridor transportation services.
The alliances deserve credit for focusing our attention on defining and accomplishing regional goals. Their priority list, concentrating on improving regional connections and preserving the region’s transit system, may have emerged from their own survey, but those items have plenty of public supporters.
Still, there’s a problem with asking transportation professionals for solutions, and it’s the same type of problem that was defined by a psychology professor named Abraham Maslow: “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”
In the case of the transportation engineers, designers and planners, their main solutions are expensive transportation projects. There are many serious obstacles to those solutions, and plenty of alternative ideas coming from outside the ranks of transportation professionals.
The main obstacle is that we’re not going to pay for all those projects. State and federal transportation funds, supported by gas taxes, are starving for revenue. Some projects, like express toll lanes, can be funded through public-private partnerships, but the D.C. region does not yet have a reliable track record with this. Even a seemingly modest goal such as preserving the Metro system has proved to be a financial stretch and a burden on riders.