Money or power: What would it take to improve your commute?

October 16, 2012
11th Street Bridge project
The District’s 11th Street Bridge reconstruction has a high impact and a high cost, but must all high-impact projects be expensive? (Robert Thomson/The Washington Post)

A comment during Monday’s online discussion sought to put a different spin on how we could cut time from our commutes.

Q. Dream Projects II: “I was intrigued by the dream projects advocated last chat. As a follow up on that, what do you see as 3-4 high impact projects that would require comparatively limited funds (so no new rail lines, bridges, or highways), but would require substantial political clout to push through?”

A. Robert Thomson: This became a topic for both an online chat a couple of weeks ago and for a follow-up blog posting. Many of you picked up on one commenter’s question about what dream project could get done assuming unlimited resources.

What I noticed in the responses was that many of the projects would also require unlimited political power, because of the projects’ huge impact on communities.

Responding to Dream Projects II is a bit tricky, I think, because projects that need only limited funds usually don’t require vast amounts of political clout.

But I would say that it would take substantial political coordination, regionwide, to get everyone to advance telework programs. Like many of you, I see them as having a high impact on the commute at relatively low cost. But maybe because there are few ribbon-cutting opportunities with telework programs, there’s not enough political activity on their behalf.

I’d also like to see politicians back new incentives for commuters to use transit or bike. Again, not many ribbons here — unless they’re opening bike lanes, and those can be very controversial if taking space from drivers, so they require some political courage, if not clout.

 Your choice?

Now, in each variation of this planning exercise, we refer to “dream” projects because neither scenario matches reality. We don’t have unlimited money or unlimited political clout to improve transportation. Over time, that often turns out to be a good thing. Up to a point, a scarcity of money creates greater competition among transportation proposals. If you think you’ve got a better way to improve people’s mobility, you need to prove it, and to build support among those who might have to give up or delay their own pet projects.

Because backers of projects don’t have unlimited political clout, they usually can’t roll over the concerns of communities most affected by the projects. Even Robert Moses, the man who came closest to being a transportation tyrant, couldn’t bulldoze Central Park or build a bridge across the the lower Manhattan skyline. (He did bulldoze the South Bronx to create the horror known as the Cross Bronx Expressway.)

Whether you prefer a transit project like the Purple Line or a road project like an outer beltway, the region is better off because we don’t have one politician or political authority able to sweep aside local concerns.

One commenter was probably concerned about neighborhood tyranny: “I have an unusual dream project, more of a dream idea. Changing the way speed bumps get approved. As more streets have grown past their original design as residential streets they have become necessary for commutes. Speed limits are one thing, but speed bumps often hurt the car and make you slow down to unnecessary speeds on roads which can’t be avoid. Therefore speed bumps should no longer be allowed just because a couple of people on the block want them, but should be open for discussion to the whole neighborhood/ district.”

That’s a small scale version of the debate we have about the opposition in Arlington communities to widening Interstate 66 inside the Beltway. Who’s highway is it? Who should have a greater say over the space, the thousands who live near it, or the thousands who pass through twice a day?

One commenter made this case: “I’d suggest that a widening (even a partial widening) of I-66 inside the Beltway would require relatively limited funds but massive political clout. Over the years I’ve found the worst backup inbound seems to be from the Dulles exit (Exit 67) to Glebe Road, with the problem compounded by the lane drops at Westmoreland Street and U.S. 29. Seems to me if you could extend a third lane all the way to Glebe (similar to what’s been done on the Beltway from I-66 to Route 7), you’d cut down on the need for as many people to merge left. But the BANANAs* in Arlington would never allow it

“*BANANA: Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anybody.”

I understand the frustration when travelers think good ideas are being blocked. Even if they accept that neighborhood concerns need to be part of such debates, they still want to see some improvement during their commuting lifetimes.

But the I-66 issue — like so many others – - muddles the money and power issues. The spot widenings on the westbound side of I-66 have been strung out over many years not because of neighborhood opposition but because the money wasn’t there to do everything at once. The definition of a project that needs “comparatively limited funds” has changed a lot over the past few decades.

So for a “dream project” that requires more political will than money, but still has a potentially big impact in improving our well-being, I’ll stick with a regionwide expansion of telework opportunities.

Do you have other ideas (low cost, but still requiring political will and courage) for improving our lot as commuters?

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region.
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Mark Berman | October 16, 2012