Future Not All Bleak
A few hours after the Texas Transportation Institute released its gloomy list pegging us at number 2 for most delayed travel, a group from government, the private sector and academia assembled at the 2941 Restaurant in Falls Church to offer a generally positive assessment of the future.
The session, a discussion of "Planes, Trains and HOT Lanes" sponsored by the Reed Smith law firm, was one of the many transportation forums that are held in Northern Virginia, where business leaders are acutely aware of the threat that congestion poses for the local economy.
Pierce Homer, the Virginia transportation secretary who knows this region so well, painted a picture of progress -- some of it realized through projects like the Springfield interchange reconstruction, but much of it yet to come.
A region now growing by two Manassases a year, he said, has long had trouble getting the state government in Richmond to realize what a challenge that represents. But, Homer said, the past year has brought a power shift in transportation planning.
Two key elements: The airports authority, which runs Dulles and Reagan National, will now be in charge of road and rail transportation in the traffic-choked Dulles corridor. The Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, meanwhile, has been empowered to raise and spend money on all sorts of congestion-busting projects, but particularly transit and secondary roads.
The state will invest $1.7 billion in the region's transportation needs, including the project beginning next year to add a fourth lane along Interstate 95.
Still, Homer said, the scale of investment required to catch up with the region's needs is beyond the reach of government. He said deals like those being struck with private companies to build and operate extra highway lanes are essential.
Ken Daley, senior vice president for international development at Transurban, which is working on the HOT lane plan, spoke reassuringly about a program that frightens some highway commuters while simply baffling others.
He said the company's surveys show that people generally have no clue what high occupancy or toll lanes are. His basic explanation: Highway drivers pay money to get a travel time savings.
Why not just add extra lanes to the highways? "You can't build your way out of congestion in this corridor," Daley said. "You must manage road space better." (HOT lanes will be free to carpoolers and buses, but for others, the toll rises as congestion rises, temporarily pricing out some drivers and keeping traffic moving in those lanes.)
Does that make the Lexus Lanes available only to the rich? No, he said, studies show that most drivers chose the toll lanes once or twice a week and that the users come from all sectors of our society.
John McClain, a senior fellow at George Mason University's Center for Regional Analysis, laid out a picture of a region that is doing well for itself but creating problems that put its future at risk. The median household income is $79,000 a year, but we need to diversify our economy, offer a greater variety and abundance of housing and get people where they need to go.
It costs us about $1,800 a year to get stuck in traffic, he said. Transportation is one area where we as a region can have some control over our fate, and it makes sense to invest in it.
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