The Washington Post’s Dr. Gridlock, Robert Thomson, will be online to take all your questions about Metro, traffic throughout the region and other transportation issues.
Also taking your questions is today’s special guest Stewart Schwartz, who is a leading advocate for sustainable development in the D.C. region in his role as executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.
Please join in with your own questions and comments for Stewart.
[Programming note: I see questions about the pope’s visit and about Metro service issues that I think are meant for me, rather than Stewart. I plan to address them on the Dr. Gridlock blog ASAP.]
Thank you Dr. Gridlock for having me on today’s chat. I look forward to everyone’s comments and questions.
Many commuters say, Duh, of course that should be the measure of a transportation project’s value. Are they right?
Since expanded roads often open the way for more sprawling development and even longer commutes, my group and most local elected officials have sought to focus on reducing the amount we have to drive by creating mixed-use, walkable and transit-focused communities, expanding transit, and ensuring more homes are available closer to jobs. As we’ve seen, demand for these communities is booming. Every person who can live and/or work in a transit-oriented community can be part of the regional traffic solution because they either don’t need to drive or will drive much less. The internet has also become an important part of the solution, allowing for telework and on-line shopping. But again, those pushing “congestion reduction” are just looking to expand highway lanes and are only looking at the short term. They are failing to look at the bigger picture of how land use, technology, and transit, walking and biking can reduce the amount of driving for the short, medium and long-term.
On Friday, the coalition released a statement in support of the Virginia government’s plan to create HOT lanes at rush hours inside the Beltway.
Many long-distance commuters fear this plan, because of the variable toll that will be imposed in both directions. According to a VDOT estimate made public this month, the morning peak toll could be $7 eastbound and $9 westbound during the afternoon peak.
Is it fair to raise their commuting costs like this?
We looked at the estimated peak of the peak toll cost ($7 to $9) in comparison to parking and riding Metro in the corridor and it’s comparable — $8.95 to park and ride from West Falls Church and $10.30 to park and ride from Vienna. So Metro riders are already paying a similar fare.
This is really the best alternative for I-66 inside-the-Beltway. Widening would require years of construction and traffic delays. It would be very difficult if not impossible to widen from Ballston to the Roosevelt Bridge, with significant harm to people’s homes and neighborhoods. Widening would cost hundreds of millions of tax dollars instead of the $40 million proposed for the tolling equipment and software. And in the end, where would all of the additional cars go? We aren’t going to widen Constitution Avenue in DC or neighborhood streets at the exits.
By pricing a road which sees so much demand in the peak hours, we can ensure it flows better giving a faster and more reliable commute, and invest in transit, including commuter buses, which will likely prove the cheapest and most comfortable way to go — allowing you to sleep on the ride to work or on the way home, or get a head start on your email inbox, and probably helping to lower your blood pressure in the process.
Many commuters on both sides of the Potomac are begging for relief from the tortuous trip on the west side of the Beltway and across the Legion Bridge.
Virginia transportation officials want to talk to their Maryland counterparts about upgrading the Legion Bridge and possibly adding HOT lanes on its approaches.
Does that make sense to you? Why wouldn’t commuters be better off if the two states cooperated on a new bridge west of the Beltway?
The western bridge would be a waste of a couple of billion dollars. VDOT’s recent bridge study showed just 5% of VA commuters to Md (declining to 4% in 2040) using the Am Legion Bridge are making the so-called U-shaped commute from western Fairfax or Loudoun to upper Montgomery or Frederick. That means for all others, the Am Legion Bridge is the best route and that traffic fixes need to happen there. Spending $1 to $2 billion upriver would divert scarce taxdollars needed for the Am Legion Bridge.
The VDOT study had some other stunning data in its assessment of all Potomac Bridge crossings from Pt of Rocks in the NW to the Route 301 Henry Nice Bridge in the south: during the morning peak, Metro carried 35% of Virginia commuters traveling across the Potomac (26% at the Rosslyn Tunnel and 8% at the Yellow Line bridge). Another 30% crossed the road bridges into DC. This compares to 14% crossing the Am Legion into Md and just 1% crossing the Pt of Rocks Bridge in northern Loudoun.
So certainly, the Rosslyn Tunnel (going first to 8-car trains and then figuring out the tunnel capacity issue) and the American Legion Bridge should rank light-years ahead of a western Potomac Bridge crossing in our priorities.
The Governor cut the share the state would contribute to the $2.5 billion project from $700 million to just $170 million. Montgomery has agreed to contribute an additional $40 million and Prince George’s $20 million on top of the other funds they are investing (a few hundred million). The feds are expected to contribute $900 million and the remainder would come from the private sector which would have to be paid back over a number of years. We need this deal soon to ensure we get the federal funds and before construction costs rise.
It’s frustrating to see the state contribute so little to the project, when highway projects are typically funded 100% by federal and state funds, and when the Purple Line offers such benefits in economic development and revitalization, connecting people to jobs, and offering an alternative to the heavy congestion on and inside the Beltway. But we are glad the Governor made the decision to go forward and we are encouraging him to seal the deal.
There’s a back-and-forth in my reader letters that goes like this:
A traveler writes in to complain about the amount of time spent in traffic. A reader responds by saying that the traveler should live closer to where she works. Another traveler writes back to say, How many times do you expect us to move? People change jobs. Also, spouses may have jobs in vary different locations.
Is it realistic to expect that we can ease our transportation problems by having a great many people live close to their workplaces?
We believe that the first keys to reducing the burdens of traffic are the continued revitalization of the city, and a network of transit-oriented centers and communities. The more people who have the opportunity to live and/or work in a mixed-use transit-oriented center, the more who will have the opportunity to drive less or not at all, improving the roads for those whose living or working situation doesn’t allow them to use transit or live closer to work.
In addition, by concentrating offices in locations with transit we will increase opportunities for people to use transit or carpool and for workers in a household to commute to the same center. In fact, there is powerful of corporations to Metro and other transit station locations. 84% of new office development is within 1/4 mile of Metro, and 92% of office leases over 20,000 square feet have been within 1/2 mile of a Metro station. Marriott’s CEO says they will move to a Metro station. Hilton and Choice hotels have both recently moved to Metro, and others are following.
Millenials and downsizing empty nesters are all seeking out more urban, walkable and transit-accessible homes, and among families, we see strong demand for homes closer in — even if the home sizes are smaller.
It’s also important to consider total housing and transportation costs when choosing a home. A pioneering tool called the Housing + Transportation Cost calculator (H+T) shows that the cost of a long commute can make what seems like a more affordable house 25 or 30 miles from DC less affordable when housing and transportation costs are considered together.
The problem with traffic is one of supply and demand but most of the focus is on the supply.
Yes, we supply tons of roads for all of our cars. We’ll never supply enough. In part, that’s because the road network was designed by idiots. The Bethesda side of the Beltway is filled with turns that slow traffic, ending in a downhill to the bridge. That means Virginia traffic is always going uphill into Maryland and trucks will ALWAYS slow up.
So forget supply for a second. Let’s talk demand. Demand is based on traffic. Traffic is based largely on people. People are based on jobs. In DC, jobs are based on one thing — government.
Why the heck is the entire government based in DC? Dept of Agriculture? Sure, there’s lots of manure in DC, but little agriculture. So, let’s put it in Iowa or someplace similar. Dept of Energy? Texas of course. Put HUD in a city that needs more help — like Baltimore. Dept of Interior in some state that has mining, parks and Native American reservations. Move out seven or eight departments (or all of them) and the Beltway bandits that work with them move to. So do the workers.
We boost the economy of those areas and make DC more livable. It will also put our national security in a better position and won’t make DC a target that could decapitate every single government agency. Dan Gainor Columbia
Could wave his magic wand and turn every diesel and gas powered vehicle in the US and Canada into a zero emission vehicles it would have no effect on climate change.
Billions of Chinese and Indians polluting to max are the problem. Vehicle choice should be decided by the buying public and not state and Federal govts. Now I am going out and driving my 1970 BMW 2002 with its detuned F2 engine with 285hp, dual carbs and 3%+ CO. Cry greens cry!
A: Stewart Schwartz
The guy who runs @FixWMATA, Chris Barnes, is attempting to start a riders union. I believe Seattle has one as well, though it’s mainly focused on low-income, student and senior riders. It seems to me to be a necessary step, given the troubles and dangers of Metro. What are your thoughts on an all-inclusive riders union here?
The reality is that for the Washington Metro area, transit accounts for only 15% or so of the overall commuter demand, a figure unlikely to rise in the foreseeable future due to high capital costs and high operating costs – at least at WMATA.
Some 80% of area population and employment growth since the 1980s has occurred outside the Capital Beltway, a trend continuing due to ever higher land costs -resulting in higher housing and office rents in DC and other inner locations.
The Metrorail plan was created in 1960s to serve the then dominant federal workforce then over 90% in DC. Economists have said that the Washington area economy needs to diversify for it to succeed in the future.
Why should taxpayers put funding into a 1960s era Metrorail system when most growth is not occurring in DC and other close in locations?
The office vacancy rate in Crystal City and Rosslyn exceeds 25% and is over 15% in other jurisdictions.
Though advocated by “smart growth” advocates, value capture is not working in reality in most areas. See NY Times article about Hudson Yard redevelopment and tax abatement offered instead of TIF.
What sources of funding do you foresee to build the “Metro Momentum” plan other than an increased sales tax favored by WMATA?
Moving the FBI to Prince George’s will result in massive lost of expertise. A young family with both parents employed as GS9s with the Feds and one kind can’t afford to live in Arlington, Montgomery or close-in Fairfax.
Outer Prince William, Stafford etc is where they can afford to live. They don’t have the disposable income for toll roads. You liberal Dems just dont have a clue.
They are my two options in getting from home to work and back again (I’m not moving; I’m not the only factor in where I live). I could go either way, but the two-lane roads on either side of the river from Point of Rocks makes that way less predictable in time because if there is one accident, the whole road is blocked.
If MD and VA would increase the lanes on Routes 15 and 28, this route would at least be an option for me when there is an accident on the American Legion.
I’ve been living in the area for decades and have worked all around the Beltway. I’ve seen the Intercounty Connector end up miles north of where it was originally designed. I’ve lived through the frustration of having various groups shut down the option of a river crossing between the two bridges.
The farms and open fields have since become neighborhoods and “towns”. The traffic has come even though the bridge was not built! Let’s do something other than HOT lanes on the American Legion!
Re the upriver bridge idea, the first issue is that the study shows only 5% making the “u-shaped commute” with so much more need at the Am Legion. The second is the cost $1 to $2 billion -including a 10-15 mile highway to I270 from the river. We need those $ for the Am Legion and the Metro tunnel. Third, like what happened with the ICC, folks on the Beltway will see no change. As we grow, the more people and companies we can offer the option to live near transit — with a network of transit oriented communities — the less total driving we’ll have. People will have more options.
But the HOT can work and it’s better than trying to build as many as 9 general purpose lanes with major neighborhood destruction. Pricing of HOT lanes helps balance out peak hour demand. But it’s only fair if the net revenues go to transit in the corridor. Express buses and future Metro extension. That gives more people an affordable option and a good chance to work or sleep while on the commute. This is why we would prefer public ownership rather than private so we can keep control of the net revenues.
The HOT lanes mean less land will be taken with less impact on neighborhoods, but they need to do some more work in a couple of communities to reduce the impacts.
What I have noticed over my time in DC, however, is that the increased focus on development in walkable, transit-oriented communities has resulted in a huge distributive effect.
Places that are “close in” to job centers are very unaffordable in this region. A generation ago, a middle class family (e.g., a government employee) could purchase a house in close-in Arlington.
These days, close-in communities like Arlington and DC and notoriously expensive, while farther-flung areas like Springfield and Manassas are where new immigrants and lower-income people must live. Most newer government employees cannot afford to live much closer to DC.
How can planners continue to push close-in development while, it seems, ignoring the increasing problem that the “commuter tax” in time seems to fall more and more on lower income people?
Is there thought being given to the class divide of smart growth, given the nature of public transit as a good for all of the public?
A: Stewart Schwartz
The high demand to live in cities and near transit has created affordability challenges, even as it has brought investment, revitalization, opportunity and safety to once depressed areas. We need more supply including at the underdeveloped metro stations we still have. We need to convert strip shopping corridors into more humane, walkable, mixed use places with new transit and more housing. We need housing trust funds so the public can partner with the private sector to create affordable units and we need inclusionary zoning where developers get density bonuses in return for providing a percentage of affordable units.
It seems people fear solving a problem because it may lead to more people wanting to use the road. In my opinion, it really leads to people looking for alternate routes and driving on roads that were NOT designed to handle the volume.
How many people drive into DC and could take I-66 if it was open to all traffic but use US-29, 50, and other roads instead?
A: Stewart Schwartz
Hopefully, in that time frame the technological progress will cause the public transportation will largely shift from buses/trains operating relatively rarely on a schedule to small self-driving electric vans which we will request from our mobile devices according to our needs.
They will be smartly assigned based on common or similar destinations of passengers, thus their use and routes will be optimized, unlike airport vans (which are assigned first-come first-served so an unlucky person visits the entire region before getting to their destination).
Being self-driving, they will be relatively cheap (no driver wage) and will be capable of driving within inches of each other on highways, optimizing road use and aerodynamic efficiency. A solution like that, combined with the inevitable move to more and more telework, will make much of today’s discussion moot.
Not everyone makes 500k a year. We can’t afford to live in such a neighborhood because the homes/condos etc are a million dollars. And no, building high rises are not the answer for affordability.
Stay safe out there and rejoin me next Monday at noon.