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Posted at 1:32 PM ET, 05/20/2010

Stop the stapling at the Transportation Planning Board

By David Alpert

On Wednesday, the regional Transportation Planning Board heard a presentation on how the region needs to grow more sustainably to avoid out-of-control greenhouse gas emissions, then voted to add projects to the long-range plan that will significantly increase greenhouse gas emissions.

The board also deleted other projects (at the behest of the jurisdictions behind them) because projections don’t show enough money being available for everyone’s wish lists. But both decisions -- to add and to delete projects -- were made without a fundamental reevaluation of the long-range plans in light of higher energy prices, the need to control greenhouse emissions, the east-west economic divide, changing demographics, land use and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments' own planning studies. It calls into question why COG spends millions testing scenarios and involving the public in visioning exercises.

Bicycle advocates were pleased to see that, despite AAA's lobbying, the board approved the Pennsylvania Avenue bike lanes for inclusion in the region's Transportation Improvement Plan. The lanes are still a pilot program, and the District Department of Transportation will have to analyze their effect before making them permanent. Of 352 comments the Transportation Planning Board received on the lanes, 342 were positive.

However, that's not quite as exciting as it sounds. The planning board essentially never rejects projects over the objections of the jurisdictions pushing them. When they did reject the I-66 widening, it was on an extremely narrow vote and only happened because Fairfax Supervisor Catherine Hudgins herself voted no. The next month, the project was back in. Just turning a project down for one month created a huge hubbub and sent a message to the Virginia Department of Transportation to do things differently. And the project still got into the Transportation Improvement Program.

In addition to approving bicycle lanes, the planning board approved plans by Maryland to add $351 million to widen Route 28/198 in Montgomery County by 2025, $399 million to widen Route 3 by 2030 and $27 million for an I-70 interchange. It also wants to make the I-270 expansion even longer, adding seven miles at a cost of $3.4 billion. This in a state that keeps saying it's broke but keeps spending money it won't have for 20 years on big highway expansions.

These votes immediately followed a presentation on greenhouse gases, which argued that the region will have to significantly change its growth patterns, not just eat away at the margins. COG also recently adopted the Greater Washington 2050 report that argues for focusing growth in sustainable ways.

It's ironic that the planning board heard a report saying it had to do things differently, then turned around and voted for the same old thing. Critics say the board is a "stapler" -- simply making a plan that adds up everything the region's local and state governments want to do. Wednesday was one of the clearest examples of that.

AAA wanted the board to vote down the Pennsylvania Avenue bike lanes, but we all know the board was never going to. The bike lanes should go in, of course, since they will reduce dependence on driving. But maybe AAA and smart-growth advocates can agree on something for once: It's time for the Transportation Planning Board to stop stapling. Vote things down if they don't meet the Greater Washington 2050 goals.

David Alpert is founder and editor of Greater Greater Washington. The Local Blog Network is a group of bloggers from around the D.C. region who have agreed to make regular contributions to All Opinions Are Local.

By David Alpert  | May 20, 2010; 1:32 PM ET
Categories:  Local blog network, traffic, transportation  
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