Commuters gain little from transportation wish lists

Robert Thomson
Columnist April 6, 2012

A transportation improvement plan should have something to do with improving transportation. Jobs are good, too. Jobs are very good. But if we pick transportation projects based on their ability to create jobs, we have a jobs plan, not a transportation plan.

The report on Maryland transportation priorities presented Wednesday by the TRIP organization is a job-creation proposal.

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. View Archive

Tops on the list: Widen the Capital Beltway, a Legion Bridge-to-Wilson Bridge project that the organization, supported by construction industry groups, estimates would cost $5.8 billion.

Even these days, you can buy a lot of transportation improvement for $5.8 billion. But that item is just the top of the list. The rest of the top 10 improvements in highways, intersections, interchanges, bridges and transitways totals nearly $8 billion more.

TRIP’s February 2011 report on Virginia projects put a $2.4 billion widening of Interstate 95 between the District and Richmond at the top of the list. The rest of the top 10 list would cost $26 billion.

This is trickle-down transportation. Start with a huge allocation of taxpayer money to the construction industry and hope that, eventually, travelers will benefit.

Think smaller

The truth is that the governments in the D.C. region, and the nation at large, are not going to collect the taxpayer money that would support construction programs on this scale.

Proposals like these simply allow lobbyists to tell us we’re so-and-so many billion dollars behind in transportation spending.

The reality is that if we’re lucky, we can pull together enough money to maintain the transportation system network we have and continue to make relatively small advances in mobility. Since governments are reluctant to raise revenue even to support that limited agenda, tolling has to be part of the program.

Think tolls

The big projects in Maryland and Virginia tend to reflect that reality. Maryland has opened most of the Intercounty Connector and financed it with tolls. It’s still working on the express toll lanes north of Baltimore.

Virginia will finish the 495 express lanes on the Capital Beltway this year and has started some preliminary work on the I-95 high-occupancy toll lanes. The Dulles Silver Line will be built with the support of Dulles Toll Road fees, then operated with the support of transit fares.

There are plenty of other ideas for improvements. All the projects mentioned in the TRIP reports are in studies on shelves somewhere. But they are unfunded. When local governments look to Congress for help, t hey see nothing but a stalemate.

Think of yourself

Travelers need to get more involved in supporting the limited improvements that have a reasonable chance of improving their commutes — in their lifetimes. They should be engaged in making real transportation improvement plans, not just wish lists of construction projects.

But that’s asking a lot. To many travelers, the D.C. region’s transportation network isn’t really a network. It’s the line they follow on their everyday trips.

An average Maryland traveler has no interest in improving the Beltway from bridge to bridge. The traveler is interested in improving the Beltway between the I-270 split and the Legion Bridge, or between College Park and Georgia Avenue. If the proposal covers that traveler’s routes, it’s a worthy investment. If not, it’s an unfair burden on the taxpayer.

Yes, it will be difficult to mobilize people to improve their mobility. But telling us we’re already billions and billions in the hole only makes people feel like they have to climb Mount Everest to get anywhere.

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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