“Conquering the Commute” conference liveblog

December 14, 2012

Washington Post Live is hosting a transportation conference on Friday at the Washington Post. The event, titled “Conquering the Commute: Solutions for Washington Transit,” will have multiple speakers discussing transportation, investments and other ways to tackle and improve commuting in the Washington region. Panels will include Robert Thomson (the Post’s Dr. Gridlock), Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Harriet Tregoning (director of the District’s Office of Planning) and others

We will be live-blogging the event here on Friday at 8:30 a.m. Visit Dr. Gridlock to follow along. You can also follow along on Twitter with the hashtag “DCcommute.”

(Background: Washington Post Live hosts conferences and events that are open and on-the-record. Head here for more on that. And here’s a look at past events.)

[liveblog]

Wrapping up

The panel on the future of the region’s roads winds down. Mary Jordan says to attendees that while we didn’t conquer the commute today, we did tackle the discussion. “Let’s just make this the beginning of the conversation about how to improve the commute in Washington, D.C.,” she says.

And that does it for the conference and the liveblog. Thanks for reading! 

The basic problem with transportation funding

Last question: Can they discuss cross subsidies? Kirby says there are a lot of cross subsidies. But the one he endorses is a carbon tax. Schwartz agrees with him. 

But Chase says the problem with transportation funding is that people aren’t paying what it costs to actually fund the transportation options. He says the gas tax in Virginia is an example of this.

“We have to be adult about this,” he says. “If utilities were run like transportation, these lights wouldn’t be on right now.”

McCartney interjects “Don’t give Pepco any ideas,” prompting laughter from the crowd.

Chase goes on to say that there has to be a set amount of what it costs to have a great system. “None of us are paying enough to make the system work,” he says. “Everyone needs to pay their fair share.” 

The draw and potential of outer jurisdictions

The next question touches on how things are cheap further away from the core of the Beltway, but it’s cheap because there isn’t the infrastructure there. The questioner says that Metro charges based on distance, so what if drivers were charged similarly? Wouldn’t that force them closer to transit options?

“Taxing the other guy is always an attractive proposal,” Chase says. “But the big reason people are in Loudoun County…is because they have good schools. They have good schools, they have safe communities.”

He says Loudoun is simply an attractive place. 

Chase also says that creating good jobs away from the urban centers leads to reverse commutes. 

“Commuters are getting taxed plenty in terms of stress, frustration. That’s not by choice,” he says. Moving workers to jobs is harder than moving jobs to workers, he adds. 

Schwartz says that this would also require balancing out where the jobs are, guiding them to Prince George’s County and looking east rather than west. 

Turning to Prince George’s County

The panel turns to answer questions from the airport. The first question is how to actually help Prince George’s County. 

Transportation infrastructure is key, Schwartz and Kirby agree. And they also agree that there already is transit and transportation there, which can help pull people when there are jobs and residential options. 

Enhancing development in Prince George’s County would be key, Kirby says. 

McCartney points out that they built things in Prince George’s County, including Metro stations, and people haven’t gone. He says putting the new FBI headquarters and a new hospital in the region, both near Metro stations, would drive people there. 

Expanding the sprawl

Stewart Schwartz points out that building out only spreads the sprawl, but areas such as Prince George’s County are left behind. Still, building doesn’t repair current issues, he says.

“You only have so much money,” he says. 

Kirby says that things like adding new bridges need to come down to need and place. If it’s needed, where would it go? The question also expands beyond costs to touch on the impact on neighborhoods. 

A regional economy without a regional transportation network

Bob Chase is discussing two key growth areas: Interstate 270 in Maryland and the Dulles Corridor in Virginia. But he says transportation is largely area-centric. 

“We have a regional economy, but we don’t have a regional transportation network,” Bob Chase says. 

Sprawl and balance in transportation

McCartney asks what is a major need for Northern Virginia? Chase says it’s getting people and cargo to the area around Dulles Airport.

“Everyone has the right to better transportation,” Chase says, stressing the need for a balanced system. “Certainly inside the Beltway, but outside the Beltway, that’s where most people are going to locate in the future.”

Schwartz says he has a different take, pointing out the importance of smart growth rather than growth for its own sake. 

Kirby, asked for his input, says it’s vital to find ways to raise money based on wherever the growth is taking place, rather than just going to state capitals and asking for more. 

Investing in urban areas versus suburbs

Robert McCartney raises the issue of investing in urban areas versus outer suburbs.

“As the economic recovery takes hold, and as more funds for road-building become available…to what extent should we be investing in the outer suburbs in this area?” he says. He notes that it’s a big philosophical issue regarding the future of transit in our area, and the discussion of sprawl. 

Bob Chase, president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, says that jobs are clearly going to crop up in the outlying areas. He cites the area around Dulles International Airport and beyond as one such place. 

“Better transportation links in the outer jurisdictions, among other things, is important for better land use, to allow higher-density communities to be built,” he says.

Spending money statewide on local issues

What’s the situation regarding roads and transportation in Maryland? McCartney pivots the conversation to Ronald Kirby, director of transportation planning department for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. 

Kirby says there’s a trust fund to pay for transportation improvements and repairs. He says Maryland has a few issues, including the trust fund, which governors have used in the past for money. 

“It’s tough to raise money statewide when needs are not uniform throughout the state,” Kirby says. The discussion on Virginia also touched on this issue.

Where is the money going?

Stewart Schwartz, founder and executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, says  it’s important to know where the transportation money suggested by Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell (R) is going to go. He is concerned about money already earmarked for certain plans, such as the Route 460 project.

Future shape of our region’s roads

The panel about the future of our region’s road system is underway. It’s moderated by Robert McCartney, columnist for the Washington Post. 

Biking/walking panel wraps up; next: roads

The “Biking, Waking and New Plans for Improved Quality of Life” panel wraps up so that organizers can keep to the schedule. Next up: “The Future Shape of Our Region’s Road System.” 

Pricing in transportation

David Alpert says that pricing in transportation is key. For example, the price of metered spaces and the cost of residential parking permits in D.C. You can’t make everything free, because that way everyone wil want it; but you also need to be better about how you price these things, Alpert says. Parking remains a valuable, sought-after resource.

Future could be nothing but drivers without cars

The volume of choices means that people can choose exactly what they want, Tregoning says. “It could be that our future in Washington is that everyone drives, but nobody owns a car,” Tregoning.

D.C. region a hotbed of transportation choice

Harriet Tregoning praises the number of choices available in this region, thanks to “transportation innovation.” Someone can drive, take a train, ride a bus, rent a bike or grab a car share. She says this is also a key part of how the region responded to the economic downturn. People stopped going to the D.M.V., she says; instead, they sought cheaper ways to commute. 

Tension between new and old

The panel is discussing the tension between bicyclists and drivers. Tregoning correctly points out that whenever there’s an innovation, like the new bike lanes, there’s a period of adjustment where people are upset by a change in the order they know. 

The great “Bicyclists vs. Drivers” debate

The panel is entirely made up of cyclists, so Mary Jordan asks a question for many drivers: How do you balance sharing the roads when so many drivers dislike bicyclists? More to the point, how do you balance providing bike lanes with providing roads for drivers?

The tension between driving and bicycling stems from unfamiliarity, says David Alpert, founder and editor-in-chief of Greater Greater Washington.

“The new [bike] lanes…have created more peace,” Alpert says. It sets a space for bicyclists, giving both them and drivers knowledge of exactly where bicyclists will be. 

Biking, walking and quality of life panel

The “Biking, Waking and New Plans for Improved Quality of Life” panel is underway. Harriet Tregoning, the director of the District’s Office of Planning, starts things by praising Capital Bikeshare. 

Mary Jordan asks why Bikeshare has taken off to such a degree here. Tregoning points out that this is the District’s second bike-sharing program. She says one of the keys is having a bigger, more comprehensive network, which is the long-term goal. 

Cardin session wraps up

The session with Cardin wraps up. Next up: A short break, followed by “Biking, Waking and New Plans for Improved Quality of Life.” 

Cardin: Infrastructure means more than roads

Have we reached a point where we’re on the decline, or is there hope for mending our infrastructure? “We have to find a way to maintain our infrastructure,” Cardin says. He says it’s not just about roads, but bridges, rivers and energy.

“When you say infrastructure, yes, it’s crumbling roads they’re talking about, but it’s also people being inconvenienced as roads get flooded,” he says. But that’s why we need to avert the fiscal cliff, he says.

Metro has improved, still needs more

“I feel very confident in telling you that there has been a sea change” at Metro, Cardin says. Metro has improved in terms of dealing with safety and other issues, he says. But they need funding to try and improve and repair current issues. 

Cardin: Metro needs repair and improvements

And now they’re opening the floor to audience questions. The first question touches Metro.

“Metro is an old system,” Cardin says. But it’s the nation’s system, he says. It ferries federal employees. “It’s in the national interest and the national responsibility to make sure that the core funding is provided.”

But Metro is a challenge, he says. They are trying to improve and repair the system while expanding it.

“Those of us who have explored the conditions of the platforms and cars, we know Metro is in need of funding,” he says. “Not only at its current level, but that it needs to be strengthened.”

And he says that requires strong management. 

Long-term transportation funding

Elected officials discuss diminishing funding and cutting things, so Mary Jordan asks where transportation rates. Cardin said people understand the importance of transportation. 

Halsey says that Cardin’s view of transportation funding as being on sound footing is very glass-is-half-full. “The reality is, the gas tax is not going to pay for long-term transportation funding,” Halsey says. So what are we going to do to fund these long-term needs?

Cardin says that earlier, when he referred to sound funding, he meant in terms of the current situation regarding potential sequestration and the coming year. But he knows that there are serious long-term needs with serious costs. 

As for the funding, he says a key part in helping pay for that is “some form of carbon-based tax.” Energy is key to transportation and many other things. 

“I think the most promising source [of revenue] is connected to energy policy in this country,” he says. 

Sequestration could impact transportation

“At this particular moment, the transportation program is relatively sound, compared to other appropriations,” Cardin says. But he notes that if sequestration goes into effect, that changes. 

Mary Jordan asks if sequestration will happen. “At the end of the day, I think we’ll figure out a way to avoid sequestration,” he says.

Next panel: “A View From Capitol Hill”

Now we begin the panel “A View From Capitol Hill.” The discussion will include Washington Post Live’s Mary Jordan, Washington Post transportation reporter Ashley Halsey III and Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.). 

The rail and bus panel wraps up

The panel concludes. The focus was largely on the issues facing Metro as well as other general infrastructure issues. Generally, though, the panelists spoke about transit and commuting as a public good and a public need. 

Next up: Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.). 

Drivers versus transit users

Thomson says that drivers don’t care much for transit users. Their focus is on the roads they use. Ross disagrees, saying that the public has more of an appetite for transit investments than road investments. 

“I don’t see it at all in terms of a competition,” Kay says. “You use the mode that works best for you.” 

Improving rail is a matter of fixing what we have, Kay says

“I don’t think we’re going to create new railroad corridors,” says Kay.” I think what we need to do is make sure that what we have works well.”

MARC and VRE operate on tracks they don’t own

A question comes up about other rail systems: MARC and VRE. They operate on tracks they don’t own, so how can they improve and handle ridership? 

Swaim-Staley notes that there are capacity issues. MARC wants to add trains, but Amtrak and CSX, the freight company, don’t have room. “Maryland is essentially using all of the extra capacity that CSX has,” she says. Short of building another line, there’s a limit to what they can do to handle capacity.

One idea, she says, is to build additional storage yards, so that trains can move in and out of those throughout the day. “But that’s still not going to address the issue of MARC capacity and VRE capacity coming into the District,” she says.

Needed Metro improvements

The first question is more of a statement about Metro issues. They need to be better about getting people in and out efficiently, improve the lighting and fix unreliable service, he says. 

Paying for improvements

Mary Jordan asks where the money is going to come from. Thomson says our transportation system is in perfect balance right now. People are determined to get relief, but they are equally determined not to pay for it. 

Gas taxes could only go so far

The issue turns to funding. Ben Ross says there’s a limit to what gas taxes can do. He also says people need to think big about what maintenance projects they can do.

Swaim-Staley disagrees, saying that we haven’t come up with a better idea than a gas tax. “Unless there’s another solution, it means we’re going to continue with what we’ve been getting,” she says.

Thomson: Hard to believe Metro even got built

Thomson notes that we all have gripes about Metro, ranging from the escalators to the service.  “If you look back at the history of Metro, you can’t believe the thing got built,” Thomson says.

“Transportation is a zero-sum game”

Mary Jordan, moderating the panel, asks about whether drivers would be okay with losing some lanes to get more people on buses.  “Transportation is a zero-sum game,” Thomson says. “If somebody else is winning, you must be losing.” 

Express buses are a complex potential solution

The discussion turns to express buses. Thomson says it’s not just an issue of money; instead, it’s about finding lanes that can be dedicated. 

“You have an entity like Metro that’s responsible for the buses, and you have all of these local roads departments that are responsible for the roads,” he says. “And they have to deal with travelers who aren’t so crazy about the idea of taking away lanes from places like Connecticut Avenue, roads that are already pretty crowded.”

Connecting bus networks with rail

Panelists are discussing the things Metro needs to do going forward.  Buses are a vital part of commuting networks, Kay said. “The question is how to make those function well with the network and the system they’re connecting to,” he said. 

Union Station could be “prototype” for other stations

“Capacity within many stations is an issue,” Swaim-Staley said. She notes that Union Station is the most-used station. She says that Metro is trying to deal with that by adding eight-car trais. And as part of the Union Station master plan, they would add multiple entrances and exits to better get commuters in and out of the station. 

“I think Union Station is probably a prototype for what you would want at other stations,” she said. 

Union Station is at capacity

Thomson asks Beverley Swaim-Staley, president of the Union Station Redevelopment Corporation, about the station’s future. She mentions the proposed master plan, as well as improvements to Columbus Circle and other changes to the station. “We are very much at capacity right now,” Swaim-Staley says. They are making improvements to try and alleviate that.

Ross: Suburbs need to think about streets for more than cars

We need suburbs to stop thinking about streets solely in terms of cars, with bicyclists and pedestrians as an afterthought, said Ben Ross.

Commuters want to ditch cars, Ross says

People are looking for a lifestyle where they don’t have to have a car, said Ben Ross, Vice President, Action Committee for Transit and chair of the Transit First Coalition. It is vital to expand the areas in the city where you can live without a car, he says. 

Commuting as a quality of life issue

The key thing to figure out is what this discussion about commuting is all about, Thomson says. “What are we actually trying to do for people?” he asks. 

Henry Kay, executive director for transit development and delivery at the Maryland Transportation Administration, says we should view commuting as a quality of life issue. 

“If we think about trying to solve a quality of life problem, as opposed to a commute problem, we’ll get a lot further,” Kay says.

Session on rail and bus underway

Now beginning: A session called “Riding the Rails and Catching the Bus.” The panel includes Robert Thomson, a.k.a. Dr. Gridlock. He introduces himself as “the Dear Abby of transportation.” 

Have we hit “peak car”?

The key issue is if this is a temporary blip in traveling habits or if we’ve hit “peak car,” Puentes says. “The point here is that places can choose to be on the downward trend, if  want,” he says.

Why is driving on the decline?

So what is causing the decline in driving? It’s been happening across age groups, though much of these declines stem from younger drivers. But Americans aren’t traveling any less, Puentes says. He adds that driving is still the dominant form of transportation, but that the trends are clear on driving being on the decline. 

Consumer preferences play a part, Puentes says. Younger people particularly are taking more bike trips and driving less. 

“Part of this is also due to telework,” he notes. 

Driving is on the decline, Puentes says

“What we got used to in this country for years and years was increased driving,” Puentes says. “We’ve started to see it slow down about 10 or 15 years ago.” 

It’s not just a recession-induced blip, Puentes says. And it’s not just happening in the U.S., he adds.

Rob Puentes: Commuting is a key part of our lives

Rob Puentes, senior fellow and director of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative, is speaking to the conference right now. He is a commuter, so he has strong opinions on the subject, he says. 

Commuting ties into where we live, our economic livelihood and more, Puentes says. 

The conference is underway

The conference has gotten underway. You can watch a livestream of the event here

Reporting live from the “Conquering the Commute” conference

And our liveblog is up and running. Here’s a view of where the panelists will sit this morning:

Mark Berman is a reporter on the National staff. He runs Post Nation, a destination for breaking news and developing stories from around the country.
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