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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.

By Robert Thomson  |  September 19, 2007; 7:55 AM ET
Categories:  Congestion  
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Comments

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.

Great, more multi-billion dollar mass transit "solutions" that provide NO congestion relief.

Its not rocket science folks. 80+% of people drive we need more road capacity. Transit only works in highdensity areas.

Posted by: you have got to be kidding me | September 19, 2007 9:37 AM | Report abuse

Just imagine if we didn't support transit and the other 20% started driving too. Then we'd be in a real world of hurt.

Posted by: I'm not kidding | September 19, 2007 10:06 AM | Report abuse

Spend the drivers' money on transit rather than more roads . . . The entire DC area is now "high density".

Posted by: ah | September 19, 2007 10:09 AM | Report abuse

"You must manage road space better."

I agree. How about allowing lane-splitting for motorcycles to use unused space and take more single occupant cars off the road.

Posted by: DCist | September 19, 2007 10:25 AM | Report abuse

I seriously doubt that the region will ever pull out from the traffic mess for several reasons:

1. It will take a LOT more ROADS. Too many well-organized, albeit small, groups simply oppose all roads and will do anything, including packing hearings, trying to scare the public, and judge-shopping to have new roads stopped. The few roads that manage to slip by the oppoNUTS are so long-delayed they aren't much help, thereby fueling the argument that "we can't pave out way out of congestion". Of course we can't when it takes so long to get roads built.

1. NIMBY's, for the reasons mentioned earlier.

2. "Smart-growthers", aka neo-urbanists. These people have "rediscovered" the city and close-in transit-centric suburbs and like to justify their position - and increase their property values - by resisting development (and the necessary road infrastructure) in the further out suburbs. To them, ALL new development must be "transit-oriented" and ALL transportation spending must be limited to transit.

Their best friends are the social engineers of various stripes who for their own selfish reasons think the world will be better once everyone is stacked in small quarters in dense urban neighborhoods and riding transit to any place they can't reach by walking or riding a bicycle. They often go through a "feel good" exercise of howling about "selfish" and "fat, lazy" people in their "Mc Mansions on five acres with their gas-guzzling SUV's". The idea that someone would prefer the suburban "lifestyle choice" really pisses them off.

3.Environmentalists. Implacable road haters, they NEVER met a road they didn't oppose. These folk just HATE to see a tree knocked down or an insect habitat disturbed for affordable suburban homes and especially for roads, but it's OK to do it for rail transit.

Enviros often talk a good game about reducing pollution, but they really couldn't care less about it - if they did, they wouldn't mount knee-jerk opposition to ALL roads - vehicles stuck in traffic congestion on an inadequate road network POLLUTE (duh)!

4. Transit advocates. To them, EVERYONE belongs on transit and anyone who doesn't use it is "selfish" and "irresponsible". You often hear them ranting that "freeways destroy cities", "driving is subsidized", about "the war for oil", and that we must "make driving more expensive to fund transit", and "get people out of their cars and onto transit".

To them, ALL transportation spending should be limited to transit, all transit rides should be free, and rail is is ALWAYS the most desirable, if not the ONLY solution. When confronted with the fact that rail needs density to make it feasable, they glibly offer suggestions to "make rail fit" with "transit-oriented development". Transit advocates are a developer's dream. Dulles rail is a case in point.

5. Metro. The most costly transit system ever built in the US. Many consider it a substitute for a road network; it was sold as exactly that. After 30 years of canceling roads under that premise, $14 billion spent to build it, plus billions in operating subsidies, no one, least of all the politicians, special interest groups, and activists who made their bones pushing Metro, is about to admit that Metro doesn't meet everyone's needs after all.

The fact that people who consider themselves intelligent - often more intelligent than anyone who doesn't see things their way - advocate more of the same failed "do anything but build new roads, starting with rail" strategy boggles the mind.

Posted by: CEEAF | September 19, 2007 6:49 PM | Report abuse

I ride a motorcycle and also see the potential advantages of more motorcycle friendly rules. Consider that motorcycles are much smaller on the roads (i.e., between lanes) and to park.

Please, no cracks about wild motorcyclists: most of us aren't.

BUT, sigh, I really doubt it can work here. The cars are often crunched pretty close together with no room for a motorcycle to fit.

More importantly, the drivers' attitudes would need a serious adjustment to make it even marginally safe. Many times when I use my turn signals before changing lanes on the beltway (while driving my car) I see cars Lunge forward to cut me off. Imagine if it were a motorcycle sliding by -- just wouldn't work with some drivers' get-behind-me attitudes.

To be fair, there are some drivers who I can tell are being careful around my bike, but only some.

I wish it could work; would really speed my trip, and car drivers' trips too because I'd be out of their way. Too bad.

Posted by: Lee | September 19, 2007 7:03 PM | Report abuse

I wish there were realistic hope for congestion relief, but I don't believe it.

DC is central but a safe back yard for the kids there is extremely expensive, and the dysfunctional school system means that private school is a virtually necessity. Not affordable for most of us parent types.

So the federally supported jobs remain centralized but middle class working folks live away from the center.

I often see comments on these forums about how public transit is the answer, but I've never seen a credible cost and impact assessment for running transit to the working folks' suburbs. And, given that it were done, a credible estimate on resulting travel times. I'll bet both are too high to be tolerated. I'd like to be wrong.

Folks who advocate a heavy focus on transit should speak up on this, or just admit that they want to kill off the suburbs. Naturally, people living "out here" will find it hard to agree.

Posted by: Lee | September 19, 2007 8:42 PM | Report abuse

"I often see comments on these forums about how public transit is the answer, but I've never seen a credible cost and impact assessment for running transit to the working folks' suburbs. And, given that it were done, a credible estimate on resulting travel times. I'll bet both are too high to be tolerated. I'd like to be wrong."

I will give you my example. I can drive the 62 miles to my office in an hour and 10 minutes. Or, I can drive 13 miles to the MARC station to take the train to my office--time: 2-and-a-half hours. Or, I can drive 37 miles to Metro--time: about 2 hours. These times are all one-way, very early in the morning. All times are about 15-20 minutes longer in the afternoon.

The very worst driving days can approach 2+ hours, but that happens maybe happens 3 or 4 times per year. In my case, Metro doesn't help on those days, because the worst traffic is after the end of the Metro line. MARC and timeliness (especially on summer afternoons)? Fugeddaboutit!

So, do I be "environmentally correct" and spend 2 to 3 hours extra commuting time, or do I spend that time with my family doing what I want?

Posted by: cb | September 20, 2007 8:33 AM | Report abuse

We need to be spending our transportation dollara with an eye to the future, not just building exactly what we think we need right now. And that means getting a big-picture look at the future. Not many people want to face this, but we're not going to be pumping more oil next year than we are this year. The spare capacity is gone, and the oil patches are being drained faster than we can replace them or find alternate fuels.

At $80 a barrel, oil is pushing against its all-time highs and is only going to get higher. When gas reaches $4 a gallon, $5 a gallon, and keeps climbing, and there's nothing politicians or oil company execs can do about it except speechify, us ordinary commuter folks are going to have to make some tough decisions about where we live and how we get to work and to the store.

People like CEEAF above want 12-lane superhighways anywhere and everywhere, but that's not going to happen. We need to be planning for what 2020 and 2040 are going to be like -- really like, not some fantasy about expressways hither, thither and yon simply because we can't imagine not driving 50 miles every day in our SUV back and forth from far-flung exurb to suburban office park.

Posted by: whatever | September 20, 2007 9:55 AM | Report abuse

Die Hard!

Posted by: rufus | September 20, 2007 4:14 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: whatever:

"At $80 a barrel, oil is pushing against its all-time highs and is only going to get higher. When gas reaches $4 a gallon, $5 a gallon, and keeps climbing, and there's nothing politicians or oil company execs can do about it except speechify, us ordinary commuter folks are going to have to make some tough decisions about where we live and how we get to work and to the store."

You're talking like a fool.

When oil prices reach the level you're praying for, the cost of transit will go WAY up - trains and buses don't run on water. Plus, the cost of anything felivered by truck will increase. Groceries don't get to your local Giant on Metro.

And people struggling to heat/cool their homes and pay more for virtually everything aren't going to be very willing to spend additional taxes to support transit they they can't use, ESPECIALLY when those who benefit from transit resist road construction. So be careful what you wish for.

"People like CEEAF above want 12-lane superhighways anywhere and everywhere, but that's not going to happen. "

Where did I say that? Can you find it?

Either cite where my posts I've suggested building 12-lane superhighways anywhere and everywhere" or STFU.

"We need to be planning for what 2020 and 2040 are going to be like -- really like, not some fantasy about expressways hither, thither and yon"

And nineteenth-century modes like trains and trolleys are the most sensible and practical solution. Yeah, right.

" simply because we can't imagine not driving 50 miles every day in our SUV back and forth from far-flung exurb to suburban office park."

The exurbs and office parks are here. So are the people who live and work there.

Instead of chanting STUPID slogans straight out of the car/suburb-haters' handbook and praying for universal distaster in the form of unaffordable fuel, you should be using your self-percieved superior intelligence to come up with workable solutions. I have - in the form of suggestiong a BALANCED network of USEFUL transit (for example, extending the Orange Line westward instead of building the Dulles rail "we wanna twain to da airport!" foolishness) AND a comprehensive network of limited-access highways.

Face it. Thirty-plus years of a transportation policy of building rail wherever (a comparative few) people want it and canceling every planned highway (a their insistence) has FAILED.

We're in a MESS because a bunch of idiots thought we were imminently running out of oil and building Metro would make building the planned roads unnecessary.

We're in a MESS because officials and planners gave road-opponents of every stripe FAR more influence than their numbers warranted.

Only a FOOL would want more of the same. Repeating the same actions and expecting a different result - "never build ANY new highways because road are bad and people who live and work in the exurbs DESERVE a bad commute; all we need to do is build more rail and that will fix everything" - is INSANITY.

After 30 years of ever-worsening traffic and an inability to do anything about it because of the selfish motives of a few people, do you REALLY expect the general public to put with more of the same because a bunch of idiots who wish to force their views on the populace simply because they don't like suburbs, roads and privately-owned cars? You think anyone with a BRAIN who deals with the traffic actually believes not building highways, building a 1000-mile Metro rail system instead, and finding ways to coerce people into using it is a "solution"? Think again.

You're a great example of why most people dislike environmentalists and why the rail transit advocates are losing influence.

Instead of bad-mouthing the suburbs, advocating "improved" continuation of a failed policy with 19th-century technology, and chanting slogans about "2020-2040", you will be better off realizing that Americans DON'T want to live in crowded cities - they want to live in suburbs - demographics prove that, and all your hating, slogans and wishful thinking about $80/barrel oil won't change that.

You think you know better than the rest of us? Check this out:http://www.uwgb.edu/dutchs/PSEUDOSC/MassTransit.HTM

Once we admit reality and start planning accordingly, we will ALL be better off.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 20, 2007 6:08 PM | Report abuse

It's not wishful thinking. $84 a barrel yesterday before settling back to $81 and change at the close. And the trend line over the last few years is up, and up, and up, and that's being driven not by speculation but by demand and a plateau in supply.

What are people going to do, CEEAF, when the 124-mile round trip like the poster's above costs $5 a gallon, $30 a day, $150 a week, $7,500 a year? On top of, as you correctly point out, the fuel-induced surcharges on everything touched by oil, which is pretty much everything. And that's just a start. $6 a gallon = $9,000 a year. $10 a gallon = $15,000 a year.

Never mind what people want. I want a pair of supermodels bringing me breakfasat in bed in the morning at my McMansion in leafy horse country before we get in my roadster for a leisurely drive through the countryside. Everybody wants. What can people afford? How many sacrifices will people be willing to make to maintain that half-acre spread in Stafford or Gaithersburg or Leesburg? How sensible is it to live in places where you have to drive everywhere to do anything when the driving becomes unaffordable?

Our way of living is predicated on the perception of permanent, abundant, cheap oil. Take that away and our miles of strip malls and office parks and subdivisions and already-existing highways suddenly no longer make any sense at all. When it does dawn on us collectively that that way of life is no longer "non-negotiable" we're going to have to make some tough decisions about where and how we live, where and how we work, where and how we play, and how we get around between those. Saying that might not make me popular with the SUV set fantasizing about 70 mph stress-free cruises home during rush hour, but so what.

Here's a website for you to look at, my friend: . Read it and weep.

Posted by: Whatever | September 21, 2007 7:36 AM | Report abuse

Posted by: Whatever | September 21, 2007 7:37 AM | Report abuse

Whatever,

Not to argue, but I think you've been a bit unfair.

Most of us (certainly me!) don't -want- to drive.

We have to for a variety of reasons. Moralizing about energy without addressing those other reasons is probably not productive.

You may think that energy will become a thing of the past, and perhaps you are right, but I doubt it mainly because the US has such a huge coal reserve.

What that might end up doing to the environment will depend...on technology, which is hard to predict. I don't claim to know.

But, back to the original question, I still believe the mobility future here is bleak: this divided area can't even agree on a plan of action, much less face the vast investment needed to improve. Some don't even agree that mobility is desirable.

Internet forums may in the end help the most by getting the word out on how the quality of life here is trending for the non-wealthy. I recently witnessed a discussion on city-data.com where people considering relocating here from Colorado abandoned their plans after hearing from the locals about the traffic, and cost of living. Other inquiries that I've seen were less clear cut (ultimate decisions not announced), but the basic idea is that people know more, and will at least not be sandbagged after they get here. Competition is good.

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