The road ahead: D.C. regional planners look at transportation priorities

Robert Thomson
Columnist July 27, 2013

Maryland and Virginia have more money to spend on transportation projects. The District’s leadership hopes to reduce dependence on cars by offering more options for transit, biking and walking. Metro’s leaders are looking beyond today’s rebuilding phase toward an expansion of transit capacity.

Suddenly, everyone is working on a plan that has a chance of being realized. This page has featured Metro’s Momentum plan, the TransAction 2040 plan for Northern Virginia and Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s Sustainable D.C. program.

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They overlap in many ways, but none is a comprehensive program for the region.

The Transportation Planning Board, an arm of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, is working on what it calls the Regional Transportation Priorities Plan.

The draft shows what it means to think regionally rather than by jurisdiction or mode of travel. These highlights show the problems and fixes that the board is reviewing.

Goals and challenges

Goal: Provide transportation options for everyone.

Challenges: The region’s roadways are among the most congested in the nation. Metrorail, already crowded at peak periods, lacks the capacity to support growth in population and jobs. Bus service is too limited in coverage, frequency and reliability. Too few have access to safe walking and biking facilities or live where walking and biking are practical.

Goal: Promote a strong regional economy.

Challenges: Too many Metrorail stations, especially on the eastern side of the D.C. region, are surrounded by underdeveloped land, limiting the number of people who can live or work close to transit. Most housing and many jobs are away from areas where transit, biking and walking are convenient and safe.

Goal: Maintain and preserve today’s transportation resources.

Challenges: Years of deferred maintenance on Metrorail has led to unreliability, delays and safety concerns, as well as higher maintenance costs. Older bridges and roads need rehabilitation.

Goal: Make the transportation system as safe and effective as possible.

Challenges: Major accidents and weather disruptions on roadways and transit systems cause severe delays and inconvenience. The number of bike and pedestrian fatalities each year is holding steady even as the number of vehicle fatalities has fallen.

Goal: Protect and enhance natural and cultural resources.

Challenges: Growth in traffic could threaten air and water quality. Development and transportation projects threaten open space.

Goal: Support long-range travel and commerce.

Challenges: Bottlenecks on highways and rail systems cause delays for freight and passengers, hurting the region’s economic competitiveness. Travel times to and from the region’s airports are becoming less reliable.

Strategies

Here’s how the planners would address those challenges.

Improve access to bus, rail. Make it easier and safer to get to bus stops and rail stations, especially without a car. Make bus stops and areas around rail stations more inviting. Build sidewalks and pedestrian crosswalks or overpasses, connect bike paths with transit stops, and install protective shelters and better lighting by stations.

Alleviate bottlenecks. Target roadway improvements that ease congestion in key locations. Install extra turn lanes, extend highway ramps and build new lanes where the cost would be modest and the impact greatest.

Develop alternative fuel services. Make electric vehicles more convenient to use and encourage individuals and businesses to buy them.

Expand commuting alternatives. Encourage commuters to use travel modes that make efficient use of limited roadway space at peak hours. Provide more information on alternative ways to reach work. Provide more incentives for using alternatives.

Make walking easier. Add sidewalks and improve existing ones. Install more crosswalk signals, pedestrian islands and raised medians. Use traffic calming to reduce speeds where there are many pedestrians.

Make biking easier. Invest in more bike lanes and paths, expand bike-sharing systems such as Capital Bikeshare, provide more bike parking and increase workplace amenities for bicyclists, including showers and changing rooms.

Maintain Metro. Reduce the backlog of deferred maintenance. Secure reliable sources of funding to ensure that maintenance is carried out as needed.

Maintain roads. Ensure that road and bridge maintenance projects are completed as a first priority for use of highway funding.

Make bus transit faster. Improve roadways to allow buses to bypass traffic congestion. Give buses priority for green lights. Provide real-time information to help travelers plan trips.

Smooth traffic flow. Minimize delays on the road network. Coordinate traffic signals and construction schedules. Provide travelers with more real-time traffic information. Clear crashes more quickly. Prepare for severe weather and other disruptions.

Improve services for disabled people. Upgrade Metro­Access and other paratransit services and provide more wheelchair-accessible taxis.

Update traffic laws. Update traffic laws to make the roads safer, and improve enforcement through stepped-up enforcement. Increase awareness of traffic laws.

Combine express toll lanes with rapid bus transit. Build express toll lanes on most interstates and some major arterial highways. Operate a rapid bus network on the express lanes.

Concentrate growth around transit. That’s accomplished partly by having local governments encourage the development and partly by enhancing rail, bus, biking and pedestrian access at those points.

What travelers want

So much for what the planners think. They recognize that what gets done depends on what the public will support, so the Transportation Planning Board conducted a Web-based public opinion survey, soliciting responses from 606 adults about what travel problems are most important to them and how they could be solved.

The results are important, because they will influence the choices of politicians and other decision makers.

Top challenges. The survey respondents identified four top challenges: transit crowding, Metro repairs, roadway congestion and road repairs.

Top strategies. The strategies most strongly supported were Metro maintenance and highway maintenance.

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