Transportation authority plans to ‘kick-start congestion relief’ for Northern Virginia

Martin E. Nohe and Christopher Zimmerman, two members of the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, took travelers’ questions about the newly empowered authority and the road, transit, biking and walking projects it can help finance.

Nohe is the authority’s chairman and Zimmerman is chairman of the authority’s project implementation group. These are excerpts from their conversation with readers during Dr. Gridlock’s online discussion Monday.

Meet the NVTA

Nohe: One of the challenges that we face at the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority is that we are generally seen as a fairly new organization, and many Northern Virginia residents are not familiar with who we are and what we do.

Having been tasked by the General Assembly to program and allocated the Northern Virginia component of the new transportation funding bill, we are in the process of developing an initial list of projects to be paid for with these new funds.

The authority’s primary goal is to select projects that will kick-start congestion relief.

All of the projects selected have been approved regionally in TransAction 2040 [the Northern Virginia transportation plan].

Q&A

On crumbling roads: Is there any plan (or money) to begin repaving the roads in Fairfax County? I can’t believe how bad the roads are around here.

Nohe: This has become a very common question, as we are still feeling the effects of the reduction in maintenance funds that we experienced during the recession.

The NVTA does not perform road maintenance, like repaving, and in fact we are not permitted under the legislation to use the new Northern Virginia regional transportation funds for paving.

But the legislation also includes new revenues that flow to the Virginia Department of Transportation for maintenance, and my understanding is that they will be stepping up their efforts for this kind of repair throughout the state.

On Route 28 improvements: Why are improvements to Route 28 between Route 50 and the Dulles Toll Road even being considered? A better investment would be to save the money or allocate the $30 million to the Route 28/Interstate 66 interchange. It seems NVTA is just spending money to show that new transportation taxes are doing something.

Nohe: Route 28 is one of the most important transportation corridors in the region and there are a large number of projects that need attention. One of the criteria that we are using for the first round of projects considered for funding is “project readiness.”

I don’t think anyone will deny that upgrading the interchange at Route 28 and I-66 would make a huge improvement to alleviating congestion. It will take several years to complete, will likely require bond financing and will absolutely require tremendous planning.

It makes the most sense if it is not an NVTA project alone, but a partnership between the NVTA, VDOT, Fairfax County and the private sector. In the meantime, we want to also identify those smaller projects which can get off the ground quickly, but which will be important to making the interchange improvements worthwhile.

On “reducing congestion”: Those who push [highway expansion] as the only approach to “reducing congestion” ignore the problem of “induced traffic” — how new roads quickly fill up and highway expansion fuels more spread-out development. Do you agree that it’s best to make investments in transit to offer commuters a better option to reduce peak hour traffic? Don’t you agree that this transit-oriented future is the most effective congestion-reduction approach for our region?

— Stewart Schwartz, executive director of Coalition for Smarter Growth

Zimmerman: You are certainly correct that building capacity without taking into account land use and development patterns will only lead to re-creating the same problems. One of the strengths of NVTA is that it brings together the folks responsible for land-use decision-making with the regional transportation responsibility.

Throughout its now decade-plus history, the authority has been preparing a regional plan that seeks to achieve balance across modes and across the region, precisely so that we can achieve sustainable, long-term benefits and not just short-term mitigation.

On building roads: All too often, when there is talk of building a new road or making an existing one wider, people complain that it will only open the door to more development. How can we convince these people that putting off the roads is worse than the future problems they are predicting?

Nohe: Change of any type is difficult and any transportation improvement project is going to have its detractors. When looking for ways to alleviate congestion, the NVTA always wants to work closely with the local jurisdiction and the community that uses the corridor.

In many cases, widening a road or expanding an intersection is the best (or only) way to allow more commuters to get where they are going each day. In other cases, better transit solutions are needed. Sometimes problems can be solved with technology.

The goal of the NVTA is to look at congestion problems from a regional perspective and use all of the tools in our transportation toolbox to find the most cost-effective solutions to gridlock.

On reports of less congestion: The Washington Post recently discussed declines in the number of cars on the road and drops in traffic congestion. To the average commuter, that seems hard to believe.

Zimmerman: One thing to keep in mind is that your individual commuting experience is impacted not only by the number of other drivers, but [also by] specific conditions related to capacity on your route. So, even if the number of drivers goes down, if there is a lot of construction under way, your drive may get worse, at least temporarily.

There will be a lot of this as we begin to implement projects; some things will get worse before they get better.

It is true that the overall pattern of travel seems to have begun to change dramatically in recent years. People are driving less, for a number of reasons. Young people are less inclined to get driver’s licences and to own cars than ever before. People are moving back to city centers and to suburban areas well-connected to transit, to bicycle networks, and that are walkable.

And this of course is pushing real estate values up in those walkable, less auto-centric places. This is likely to be the new reality for a long time to come.

Upcoming hearing

The authority plans to hold a public hearing on its initial round of projects at 6 p.m. Wednesday in the City of Fairfax’s city hall, 10455 Armstrong St. The authority’s board will meet after the hearing to consider the spending plan.

 
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