Can we be smart about spending the D.C. region’s new transportation money?

Weekdays between 7:45 and 8:15 a.m., I check the traffic maps and camera views for the D.C. region to see where congestion is greatest. Over many months, the slow zones are amazingly consistent.

The map lines that show heavy highway traffic in red or black are almost always in the same places. And when I want to see cars stuck to each other’s bumpers, I know just which cameras to call up.

If we could just fix those half-dozen trouble spots where tens of thousands of commuters are delayed each morning, wouldn’t we go a long way to solving the thing we call our transportation problem?

Well, apparently, I shouldn’t consider a patent on this proposal to concentrate our resources on today’s worst problems. First, it’s likely to have occurred to the commuters waiting on the Capital Beltway in Silver Spring or on Interstate 395 near the 14th Street bridge. But these days, it’s also one of the main arguments raised in discussions about our grand plans for congestion relief.

I heard it in the public comments about the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority’s first round of spending and in reactions to the Transportation Planning Board’s effort to develop a Regional Transportation Priorities Plan.

This issue of how to allocate resources is especially important now because we suddenly have resources, thanks to the transportation revenue boosts approved by the Maryland and Virginia state governments.

Bob Chase, the president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance who has been campaigning for years to reach this point, fumes when he thinks we’re in danger of spreading the extra money too thinly rather than focusing on a smaller group of projects likely to have a big impact on congestion.

Chase thinks we should resist an “Alice’s Restaurant” approach in which we invest in a multitude of projects. We can’t really get anything we want.

“We need to make choices,” Chase told the regional Transportation Planning Board members as they reviewed a draft of the priorities plan.

I like the priorities plan. It’s a rare example of a transportation panel assessing what problem we’re trying to solve and how to solve it.

Chase wants more: “Strategies are not the same as priorities,” he told the board. He wants to know specifics about what bottlenecks would be fixed. The plan doesn’t identify “real tangible projects that need investments.”

Harriet Tregoning, director of the District’s Office of Planning and a member of the Transportation Planning Board, noted the Achilles’ heel of long-term plans that are very specific.

“People are changing modes [of travel] much more quickly than we ever imagined,” she said at the board meeting. A transportation project that looked smart when first proposed “may be a really dreadful idea 10 years from now.”

Often, the debates about transportation plans come down to which mode you prefer. Most people drive, so if you like roads, you argue that new spending should focus on road improvements, giving the most relief for the most people.

If you like trains, buses and bikes, you argue that we can never build enough roads to ease congestion. In fact, the more roads we build, the more congestion we have. We need to offer travelers more choices, they say, so we can spread out the demand and move people more efficiently.

Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, resists the idea that spending a lot more on new transportation projects is the key to making us more mobile. We must create sensible connections between where people live and work.

Ron Kirby, the board’s director of transportation planning, grows impatient with any attempt to pick a single solution, or battling about one mode over another.

“Get off the modal war,” he said. “Have all modes work together.”

That makes sense, as along as it remains a real transportation plan and not a plan to give everyone some money to spend.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or e-mail drgridlock@washpost.com.

 
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