Planners approve transportation priorities for D.C. region


Plan urges region’s leaders to focus their spending on maintaining the road and rail network we have. (Gerald Marineau/The Washington Post)

People who represent the fragmented jurisdictions across the D.C. region agreed Wednesday on a set of priorities for transportation planners.

The plan adopted unanimously by the Transportation Planning Board urges local governments to think regionally in selecting projects, emphasize ones that fix the road and transit network we already have, strengthen public confidence in their decisions and give people more options about how to travel.

The Regional Transportation Priorities Plan attempts to shape planners’ thinking in choosing projects, but it doesn’t name any projects to advance. The lack of specificity frustrates some transportation advocates, including Bob Chase, the president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance. He refers to it as an Alice’s Restaurant “You can get anything you want” approach to planning.

Supporters, including Stewart Schwartz of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, see progress in the fact that a planning panel is willing to set regional priorities. Virginia, the District and Maryland have their separate systems for selecting and advancing projects. They are more responsive to local interests than to regional needs. While Schwartz has criticized aspects of the plan, he has supported its emphasis on fixing things first, and on improving the efficiency of the existing road and rail network.

The priorities plan doesn’t affect the underlying structure of local planning. but the formal regional support for its goals could influence upcoming decisions. The power of the Transportation Planning Board lies in the legal need for the jurisdictions to incorporate their projects in the region’s Constrained Long-Range Transportation Plan.

The priorities plan now becomes a policy guide for local and state leaders who want to get their projects into the regional long-range plan. Local travelers naturally remain more focused on how they’re going to get home tonight rather than on what the transportation network will look like in a decade or two. But as they back up on the Beltway or squeeze aboard crowded Metro trains, many do wonder if there is any connection between their plight and the planning process.

The plan approved Wednesday is one of those rare documents dedicated to the late Ronald F. Kirby, who as director of transportation planning for the board, guided the development of the document. The dedication says in part: “This plan, which Ron worked tirelessly to develop, is a reflection of his innovative yet pragmatic approach to improving the region’s transportation system and making the region a better place.”

The plan’s priorities are grouped into three areas.

Meet existing obligations. Maintain the region’s existing transportation system. For example: Fix Metro and maintain it in a state of good repair.

Strengthen public confidence and ensure fairness. Pursue greater accountability, efficiency and access to transportation for everyone.

Move more people, more efficiently. Make strategic decisions to lessen crowding and congestion on the region’s roadways and transit system to accommodate growth.

Use this link to see the Regional Transportation Priorities Plan.

Todd Turner, a Bowie city council member and chairman of the priority plan task force, said the existence of such a plan, underpinned by a survey that sought public opinion on these priorities, will help restore public confidence in transportation planning. “But people have to take leadership in their own communities,” he said. In effect, addressing his local government colleagues across the region, he added: “We’re giving you the guidance. It’s up to you to do it.”

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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