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D.C. region’s leaders pursuing many different paths to make travel easier

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The authors of the national study telling us we have the nation’s worst traffic problems say there’s no “rigid prescription for the ‘best way’ ” to cure them. They recommend we find our own paths out of the mess.

The governments in the D.C. region are following various routes, sometimes emphasizing investment in infrastructure and sometimes better management of the assets we already have. These five recent developments illustrate the divergent paths.

Virginia General Assembly

The most spectacular development in regional transportation in many years occurred in February, when Virginia legislators approved a taxing plan to raise about $880 million annually.

The spending plan is very complicated, eliminating the 17.5 cent per gallon retail gas tax while adding a 3.5 percent wholesale fuels tax, a 0.3 percentage point increase in the general sales tax and other fees.

What could go wrong? On the financing side, this plan muddles the traditional way of supporting transportation improvements through a user fee, the gas tax. As a congestion relief plan — well, it’s not a congestion relief plan. It’s a spending plan. Advocates for travelers will have to monitor the state’s spending priorities for years to ensure that part of the money goes to congestion relief.

Although infrastructure building plans and congestion relief programs overlap to some extent, they are not the same thing.

I-66 traffic management

Days after the assembly approved the transportation financing plan, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) touted the start of a congestion-relief project that doesn’t require new highway lanes.

For several years, the Virginia Department of Transportation has been developing a plan largely supported by federal money that will use electronics to give drivers on Interstate 66 more information about conditions ahead, so they can make timely decisions. The program, called active traffic management, will also regulate the flow of vehicles at entrance ramps. The project is scheduled to be ready in 2015.

What could go wrong? Active traffic management is very promising because it’s a relatively low-cost way of better using the transportation infrastructure we have. But the success of a smart road depends on how smart drivers are about using it. For example, when they see signs warning they need to slow down because of a lane blockage ahead, will they slow down?

Metro Silver Line

The new Virginia spending plan will add state money for construction of the Metrorail line to Dulles International Airport and Loudoun County. Meanwhile, both Metro and Fairfax County are well into their preparations for opening the line’s first phase to Reston late this year.

Building a rail line doesn’t ease congestion. Getting commuters to give up their cars eases congestion. In Fairfax County, where the five stations in the Silver Line’s first phase are located, county officials are working not only to keep the transit users they have, but also to create thousands more.

What could go wrong? To incorporate the new line, Metro has inconvenienced thousands of its riders by redirecting Blue Line trains. The day the Silver Line opens, the Fairfax Connector will disrupt the travel habits of thousands of bus riders, canceling some routes while adding others.

Some bus riders who now have one-seat trips to work may not want to transfer to a train. They could return to car commuting. Others may try to figure out ways they can drive to the four stations in Tysons, despite the lack of station parking.

D.C. traffic reduction

Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s administration has embarked on an ambitious and potentially disruptive plan to modify travel behavior. Through various land-use and transportation programs, the city over the next two decades would increase use of public transit to half of all commuter trips, increase biking and walking to a fourth of all such trips, and cut trips by car or taxi to a fourth of the total.

Over that time, the D.C. government hopes the city’s population would grow by a quarter-million people. “The city isn’t adding roads,” said Ron Kirby, director of transportation planning for the Washington Metropolitan Council of Governments. If the District can offer more travel options that allow people to go car-free, it could make the city a more affordable and appealing environment while still absorbing newcomers.

What could go wrong? Not every 70-year-old with a hip replacement is going to want to pedal to the supermarket. Not every couple with young children moving to a transit-oriented neighborhood are going to want to live car-free. Again, a good result depends on thousands of people modifying their behavior.

Long-range planning today

Our transportation problems do not stem from a lack of plans. We’ve got conceptual plans, such as the sustainability program Gray (D) unveiled in February, and financially constrained plans — the ones grounded in a budget process.

On Feb. 20, the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board agreed to projects proposed by the District and Virginia for addition to the updated long-range plan.

Maryland, which has very few large-scale projects underway, did not offer any additions. Virginia’s updates focused on highway projects, including a northward extension of the 495 Express Lanes, improvements to the ramps connecting the Capital Beltway and the Dulles Toll Road/Access Highway, and improved access to Dulles Airport from the west and south.

The District, by contrast, focused on projects that will reconfigure streets and reduce lanes available to motorists, including a plan to add a bike lane to M Street between 15th and 25th streets NW.

What could go wrong? Although Maryland is making some traffic flow improvements to accommodate the federal base realignments, completing the Intercounty Connector and repairing many of its transportation assets, other needs are growing. For example, the state has no near-term program for improving mobility on the west side of the Beltway or along I-270.

Transportation plans often create conflicts with communities that want neither the traffic nor the development. Virginia’s road-building program has raised such concerns, as in the community opposition to the initial plans for road work west and south of the airport.

The District’s traffic lane restrictions and street parking reductions have sometimes been portrayed as a war on commuters, a city-suburb battle. But many longtime D.C. residents have concerns of their own. They fear the plans will restrict access to convenient street parking and make it impossible for them to retain ownership of their cars.

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