D.C. area planners adopt transportation priorities that focus on fixing what’s broken


Afternoon traffic on the Capital Beltway in Silver Spring, Md. (Mark Gail/The Washington Post)
Robert Thomson
Columnist January 18

Commuters naturally focus more on how they’re going to get home from work than on what the transportation network will look like in a decade or two. But as they sit in backups on the Capital Beltway or squeeze aboard crowded Metro trains, many do wonder if there is any link between their plight and the D.C. region’s plans.

It was on the mind of the late Ronald F. Kirby, who, before he was killed in November, had spent more than a year working on a project called the Regional Transportation Priorities Plan. People who represent the many fragmented jurisdictions that create our transportation network approved the plan Wednesday.

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

The document’s 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.”

As director of transportation planning for the regional Transportation Planning Board, Kirby wanted the D.C. area’s planners to agree on goals that were logical but also achievable. Preparation of the plan included a public opinion survey to find out what travelers wanted.

The resulting plan reflects the interest of today’s travelers in fixing the road and rail systems we already have.

It’s a long document, but the plan’s priorities can be 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. Pursue greater accountability, efficiency and access to transportation for everyone, and ensure fairness.

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

Kirby didn’t like dividing travelers into categories. He wanted the plan to give them choices about getting where they were going in the most effective ways.

The regional panel has limited leverage to enforce these worthy goals. The Washington region doesn’t have a central authority that tells localities what to spend on which transportation projects. The priorities plan doesn’t affect the underlying structure of local planning.

But the formal regional support for the plan’s goals expressed in the vote Wednesday could influence upcoming decisions. The power of the Transportation Planning Board lies in the legal need for the jurisdictions to incorporate their projects into the region’s Constrained Long-Range Transportation Plan.

Now that the priorities plan has the formal support of the regional board, it becomes a policy guide for local and state leaders who want to get their projects into the regional long-range plan.

Many of the people who spoke in support of the plan Wednesday noted it wasn’t perfect. Some business and civic groups also have expressed concern.

Bob Chase, president of one of those groups, the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, has often called for more specifics. He refers to the plan as an “Alice’s Restaurant” approach (“You can get anything you want”) to the region’s needs.

In a statement to the transportation panel Wednesday, Chase said: “Rather than addressing our regional network’s most obvious deficiencies — the Maryland Beltway, I-66 corridor, American Legion Bridge, new Potomac River and suburb-to-suburb capacity, [the plan] offers a locally oriented approach with no estimate as to what its implementation might cost, no evidence that its implementation would make a measurable difference in reducing congestion, improving travel speeds or regional mobility in general and no accountability on the part of this organization for its implementation.”

Supporters, including Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, see progress in the fact that a planning panel is willing to set regional priorities. While Schwartz has criticized aspects of the plan, he has supported its emphasis on fixing things first, and on improving the efficiency of today’s road and rail network.

He said he also liked the plan’s emphasis on transit and on land development focused on transit centers.

“We cannot build our way out of this with roadway capacity,” Schwartz said of the region’s travel congestion problems.

The biggest obstacle to the plan’s goals is the gap between regional needs and local interests.

Todd Turner, a Bowie City Council member and chairman of the priority plan task force, said the existence of such a guiding document can 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.”

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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