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Hope for Traffic?

This comes from my online chat earlier today. I'll add a couple of my thoughts to it and then open it up for y'all.

"Northern Virginia: Is there any hope for a solution to the traffic problems in our region?

"When I bought my home 8 years ago, my commute was an acceptable 10 miles. Now, two jobs later, my commute is a miserable 25 miles each way. With the cost of housing, I can't afford to move closer to my job and I haven't had luck finding jobs closer to my home.

"It seems to me that as long as companies in the DC metro area continue to recruit and hire new employees, developers will continue building more homes which leads to more traffic. For some strange reason, it seems that a developer can build 10,000 new homes in a few years but it can take the local, state, and federal government decades to improve the roads to support that growth.

Even if there was a complete stop to all new housing development, the area roadways are still at their capacitiy limits. All attempts to slow housing development seem to backfire and cause people to move even further away from the jobs creating need for people to drive even further.

Please tell me that the local, state, and federal governments are aware of the problems and have real solutions for the near future."

I think you have hit on the key to our area's traffic problems: jobs. There is an expression in the transportation world that if you build it--it being a highway--people will come. There is some truth to that, but it misses the point. People go where the jobs are, not where the highways are. I can show you plenty of nice, big highways with no traffic on them in cities with tanking economies. If you want a traffic-free city, go to one where the economy stinks. Conversely, there is no city in the world with a good economy and no traffic. They go hand in hand.

As long as this area continues to generate thousands of new jobs every year, people will come. And stopping development in one area only shifts it to another. People will suffer through inordinate commutes if it means a good job and a good life for their families.

One thing that would help manage the problems are more coordination between governments. Everyone knows that, but the incentives are not there for them to do it and it's harder in this area than most because of all of the levels of government involved. Each county is motivated by its own interests, which usually means expanding its commercial tax base, which usually means more jobs, more traffic and more clamor for more housing. Then you've got three different state-level governments with wildly different views on things. Throw in the interests of the federal government and it's hard for any possible coordination to get done.

That's just one of many problems with traffic management around here. I'm interested in hearing what everyone else thinks.

And for the rest of my chat, click here.

By Washington Post Editors  |  June 12, 2006; 12:49 PM ET
Categories:  Commuting  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Woodrow Wilson Bridge: Three New Lanes Open
Next: A New Kind of Traffic Report


I commented this morning on how the traffic is so bad between Tyson's Corner and (pretty much) MD Route 50. I find it amazing how there can just be so many people driving stop-and-go for half of the entire beltway. (And from what I hear, the lower half - allusion: Wilson Bridge - isn't much better.) So pretty much, the entire beltway is awful - but it's the only thing we have. Another participant commented on how I should know the shortcuts to avoid the beltway - which I do, believe me, I know all of them. But, this doesn't really solve our problem, because my bailing out onto Rockville Pike via Democracy Blvd and Old Georgetown Road doesn't seem to alleviate the problem too well. There are simply too many people trying to use a road that cannot handle them. Steve commented how HOT lanes (toll lanes) and expansion would help, but eventually those will be clogged too. How many times have you heard Lisa Baden on WTOP say "the Dulles Toll Road is backed up between __ and __"?

I think that development in this area needs to stop. The only development that should be permitted is re-development of existing locations that do not add any more residences. If people want to live here, there are plenty of homes that exist (and with the real estate market the way it is, it shouldn't be too hard to find one at a reasonable price relative to the area). Over-development is responsible for our traffic woes.

Posted by: silver spring | June 12, 2006 4:02 PM | Report abuse

Overdevelopment may be a problem, but there's no realy way to stop it. People who work in and around DC live in DC, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and now even Pennsylvania. They're not all going to agree to stop development.

And stopping building only makes housign costs worse and does nothing to alleviate traffic. This region needs to get serious about public transportation to make it a viable option for more commuters (and a system that can actually handle those people). And I don't just mean Metro.

Why are there only 2 VRE lines? Why only 3 MARC train lines? There are VAST stretches of land that are completely unserved by anything except roads for single vehicles.

Posted by: nashpaul | June 12, 2006 4:32 PM | Report abuse

silver spring:
Spoken like a true homeowner. While stopping growth is a nice idea for folks who already own a home it doesn't do much for young kids who are just starting out in life. Stopping construction of new housing would cause prices to skyrocket beyond what they already have-supply and demand.

Like it or not, this area is and will always be a hub of commerce because of the presence of the federal government. The federal government has a duty to provide a certain level of services to the citizens of this nation. DC itself really isn't that big so a lot of the jobs are going to be have to be in nearby VA and MD. The population of the United States continues to grow so the federal gov't will continue to grow, too.

There's no way to stop growth; all we can do is try to manage it better. A combination of easing zoning laws in the close in suburbs, extending Metro, and building more roads is the only solution at this point.

Oh, and about the tens of thousands of people who would be out of work if we shut down construction... you'll help them all find jobs, right?

Posted by: John | June 12, 2006 4:40 PM | Report abuse

To the person from Clarksburg going to the Bay Bridge from today's chat: DON'T take I-70 east to the Baltimore Beltway! Get off I-70 at MD Rt 32 and take that to I-97. You totally avoid Baltimore and DC traffic. There may be some congestion thru Columbia and around Ft. Meade but nothing like driving from 70 to 97 or 270 to 50.
Regarding MARC train expansion: the State is at the mercy of the owners of the rail lines, CSX and AMTRAK. For example, the reason that MARC stopped running trains to Orioles games at Camden Yards after the first year or two was that CSX felt that they interfered with its frieght train schedule too much.

Posted by: Former Area Resident | June 12, 2006 4:44 PM | Report abuse

I lived in the DC area for eight years before finally relocating the beginning of last year.

I sympathize with all of you - but then again - if you are so sick and tired of the traffic, stress, high cost of living, etc. then do something about it - MOVE!

After finally realizing the traffic, stress, overpriced housing and other lifestyle factors that is DC, isn't worth it, I took the 200k I made by selling my TOWNHOUSE in Centreville to a nice West Central US city where I got a 2,200 square foot four bedroom house with a nice yard and two car garage for $110k less than I sold my C'Ville townhouse for!

My property taxes are $1k cheaper than they were in Fairfax and my commute is 5.5 miles! I make it in 10 mins if I hit all the traffic lights.

So - if you all are that sick and tired of the lifestyle there - move! Better do it now before your housing market really tanks!

Posted by: Got Outta Dodge | June 12, 2006 5:04 PM | Report abuse

The other option is people could grow up, realize that not everyone can live in a McMansion with a yard, and two Stupid User Vehicle garage, and accept smart growth.

Or they can continue to sprawl across the state lines and do multi-hour one way commutes. The rest of us will be laughing when Gas shoots up and makes it all non-economic and you go broke.

Posted by: Actually | June 12, 2006 5:22 PM | Report abuse

I agree with "Get Out of Dodge"--why, for example, should we spend another 50-60 million to fit the intersection at Viers Mill Rd. and Rt. 28 (Rockville, Md.) when it will simply be over-congested six months after the work is done? How many 10 or 12 lane roads do we need to alleviate congestion that will only fill up again shortly after the work is completed? Remember when I-270 was a traffic-free marvel? Only lasted until everybody moved to Carroll and Frederick Counties and now its a parking lot. Let the people work their will --Stop building massive roadways and drivers will just move away like "GOOD" to a better life style.

Posted by: Mike | June 12, 2006 5:34 PM | Report abuse

As long as federal agencies continue to promote the idea that they *must* be located downtown, this problem will continue. Some agencies (NIST and the AEC) have their buildings outside the beltway and seem to do fine as far as shortening the commute for their employees.

I just wish more federal agencies would find buildings to occupy that are near the ends of the metro lines, instead of the mentality of "if you're not downtown, you aren't a federal agency".

Posted by: Michael | June 12, 2006 5:47 PM | Report abuse

The other thing about this discussion is that people still think of Washington as a small town without too much traffic. It's not. The city is big enough and the roads congested enough that people just have to realize that there WILL be traffic and no amount of road-building is going to make the traffic go away.

Think of New York City. No one expects there not to be traffic in NYC, but people seem to think of DC differently. Area residents just need to accept that there WILL be traffic and work on trying to come up with alternative strategies (such as greatly enhanced public transit or telecommuting opportunities) instead of laying down even more asphalt.

Posted by: nashpaul | June 12, 2006 5:59 PM | Report abuse

Let me try to clear up some misconceptions about HOT lanes. They are not the type of toll roads you're used to. They're not the same as the Dulles Toll Road.

Using newer technology, HOT lanes will not have set tolls. Rates will change throughout the day in increments as little as every five or ten minutes. They will change as traffic changes. So when there is a lot of traffic, they will increase. When there is no traffic, they will decrease. The reason for doing this is that it allows the operators to control how much traffic enters the lanes. If the lanes are crowding the toll goes up to a point where most drivers won't want to pay. This conceivably allows operators to keep the lanes congestion free, forever. The tolls may rise to $10 or $20 each way every day, but the result would be a guaranteed travel time.

Posted by: Steven Ginsberg | June 12, 2006 6:37 PM | Report abuse

Over-development is indeed a problem and needs to be solved. Montgomery County (MD) and the state of Maryland spent millions of dollars revitalizing downtown Silver Spring and now they have their eyes set on Wheaton. They are planning to build hundreds of new townhomes on the site of Good Counsel HS. What will this accomplish? More people = more traffic. Would it kill the county and state to not develop that land and perhaps just leave it as an open field or put a park there, or community pool, or something that doesn't involve hundreds more people moving into densely packed homes? I don't think so.

As for the people who want to move into town, there are plenty of older homes available that you could probably get a better value (not necessarily cheaper up front, but in the long run a better value) for than the squished together townhouses. I know if I wanted to move, my house would be reasonably priced and in a good neighborhood (it is not a McMansion and we drive gas-friendly Hondas, FYI). The housing market is at a point where people are struggling to sell their homes and if you can't afford to live in or around the city, then don't move here. Alas, I'm getting off topic...

The issue of lost jobs: I said over development was a problem and I suggested re-development. These construction jobs could be put to use remodeling existing infrastructures to improve their condition. How many people would like to see a pot-hole-less Georgia Avenue. The money that the county invests in these construction workers and projects to "revitalize" certain neighborhoods could be spent making it easier to live here by alleviating our traffic problems. I'm not saying revitalization is bad, I am saying that it is sometimes unnecessary.

Also, I think the person who suggested smart growth is a genius. Good job for even knowing what that is.

Posted by: silver spring | June 13, 2006 8:51 AM | Report abuse

Couldn't agree more with a lot of these comments.

Growth and development is an unstoppable force. And with that must come change. The country's population is booming unstoppably - so we need to stop pretending we can stop it by just "not building places for all those people to live".

That being said, it is becoming more and more critically important for our elected representatives to be aware of the difference between smart growth and stupid growth....

Growth should be allowed with very little restriction in areas within walking distance to high quality rail transit. Statistics prove that people living within that distance and MUCH MUCH less likely to get in their car and drive to work every day. I think DC should seriously consider raising the heigh limit in 0.5mile radii around metro stations. This would allow for a great deal of urban growth without destroying quaint suburban neighborhoods and without promoting unsustainable sprawl.

Take NYC as an example. Dense populations result in great great things... Sure, the percentage of NYC residents likely to go out and support theater or other arts is probably not particularly higher than in DC. But if you take that percentage and multiply it by 8 million instead of by less than 500,000... you end up with a lot more great art. This extends to all things effecting quality of life.

Most importantly.. it effects safety. People pay taxes, taxes pay for services. Take the number of NYC police officers per resident and compare that with the number of baltimore cops per resident. (i use baltimore, because i've actually calculated these numbers) Those numbers are actually pretty similar. Now compare the number of cops per square mi for the two cities.... drastically different numbers. I suspect you'd see similiar numbers in DC. The fact that the first number is the same doesn't do much for ya when you're getting mugged and the nearest cop is a half a mile away.

Next... the suburbs need to be smart on growth too... They have started by encouriging their own dense urban development (silver spring, bethesda, etc..) actually denser than anything in DC due to the lack fo dumb height restrictions! Next... mass transit. MARC service is useless if you're trying to do anything except go into dc at exactlly rush hour. I was back home in NJ the other week... and my train out of NYC was PACKED (with 5 of 6 cars open!) at 2:00 in the afternoon! Yes.. part of it is again, just a denser population - but hey, we're gettin there in maryland too! But I think a bigger factor is that its a self-perpetuating system... if transit is mroe convenient, more people ride, if more people ride, more service opens up to accomodate, if you service opens up, it's even MORE convienient... But you can't expect the riders to start that pendulum swinging.. thats what we have governments!! MARC needs to have an aggresive marketing department whose job it is to get butts in seats. They need to partner with business (not just DC businesses!) to get them to offer incentives for employees to commute by mass transit. They need to partner with events, sporting and otherwise, to make it attractive for someone in DC to go to an O's game or someone in Bmore to come to a Nats game! And yes.. that means running trains later than 8PM! Look at what the self perpetuating system has done for NJ transit and the state in general! Most of the lines run til 11pm, some til 1:30am... all but one i think runs on the weekends... Hoboken, NJ is AS popular of a saturday night destination for the bar-crowd as manhattan is! (Could you imagine how great Silver Spring on a Saturday night could be if it where the center of a whole lot of GREAT rail based transit options from all over the state!?)

In summary.... smart, effective growth... dense urban populations... not sprawling ICC McMansions... that is what will maintain affordable housing, maintain the integrity of small neighborhoods, lower crime rates, and create an overall better quality of life... sprawl will do none of this, smart growth will do all of it.

Posted by: PJB | June 14, 2006 12:45 PM | Report abuse

As a lifelong northern Virginia resident, I have to say that among all the solutions for traffic congestion is one that local and state officials routinely overlook: the little fixes. There is much research data that demonstrates that comparatively minor alterations to our road system (and even some of our traffic laws) go a long way towards KEEPING TRAFFIC MOVING; not necessarily at high speed, but MOVING. Some examples: more and better signage, traffic light re-timing, longer left-hand turn lanes, RIGHT hand deceleration/ turn lanes, and wide curb cuts (allowing buses and large trucks to ease into something more than a 90-degree turn. How about eliminating some of these wide concrete medians on secondary roads and replacing them with express bus lanes (a missed opportunity during the widening of Route 1 in Fairfax County)?

Finally, something that has been harped on time and time again: physical enforcement. By this, I mean hiring and posting posting traffic-only cops at the busiest intersections during rush hours. I can't speak for the rest of the area, but Fairfax County just passed a $3 BILLION budget for FY 2007; I'm sure someone could shoehorn the money in.

I think for the long-term, comprehensive approaches should be taken to address the macro issues--but the differences between those who are close in, those far away, and those just passing through is a huge salad that has just begun to be untossed. Every jurisdiction should view themselves as a a sort of laboratory, experimenting with these minor fixes, and perhaps other communities will follow. That seems the best solution for the immediate future.

Posted by: CPS | June 20, 2006 3:19 PM | Report abuse

The best solution is to stop building roads and start building SkyTran - it will be faster, cheaper, cleaner, safer, quieter, not require waiting, and use less energy. Any questions?

Posted by: Joe | June 23, 2006 11:22 PM | Report abuse

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