Dr. Gridlock

Dr. Gridlock: Build More Roads? Why Not Just Drive Less?

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

The only way to solve the traffic problem is to reduce travel. Most people haven't accepted that improvements in communication have eliminated the need for much if not most travel.

For example, offices no longer serve a valid purpose. With broadband Internet, people can do the same things they do in an office without leaving their home. Abolishing offices and eliminating other pointless travel would save money, save time, save the environment and save lives -- a win-win-win-win proposition. All that is needed is to overcome people's huge resistance to change.

-- Bobby Baum, Bethesda

Elsewhere on the Commuter page, you will find Virginia Secretary of Transportation Pierce R. Homer outlining plans to improve travel along the Interstate 66 corridor. Although the event is called the "Five-Minute Drill," Homer was allowed to go into overtime so that he can repeat a message he's been delivering for more than a year: There's no money to build most of the transportation improvements that local travelers say they want.

The money for such improvements comes largely from taxes on gas and car sales. "That's not a healthy business model," Homer said. Construction of a handful of very big and very expensive projects concentrated along highways -- including Dulles Rail, the Interstate 95 widening and the Telegraph Road interchange -- is masking the steady reduction in money available for scores of smaller projects across the region.

What's true in Virginia is true in Maryland, the District and the rest of the nation. But Virginia's transportation cutbacks -- or at least one fraction of that ever-expanding category -- got some extra prominence: Virginia cut back on roadside rest stops.

"It's an amazing thing to me . . . the things that capture people's attention and imagination," Homer said. Painful as the rest stop closings were, the state's problems are far larger than that. Virginia no longer is fighting a battle for congestion relief. With a few exceptions, the commonwealth has been reduced by its finances to simply maintaining the roads, rails and bridges that it has now.

Bob Chase, president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, works to energize civic, business and political leaders to fight that slide.

In his remarks at the end of the "Five-Minute Drill," he said: "Nearly 50 years ago, President John F. Kennedy challenged this nation to reach the moon within the decade, not because it would be easy, but because it would be hard, and in doing so would help harness the nation's energy and talents in many areas.

"I would suggest that the time for this region and this Commonwealth to take a similar approach to surface transportation is long overdue. For too many years, we have tackled transportation projects not because they are hard, but because they are easy. Putting off difficult projects until later or to someone else's watch."

But even if Homer, Chase and other transportation advocates can reverse the financial trend and find more money, we still will lack the billions of dollars needed to build our way out of congestion in a commuter's life span.

That's where Baum comes in, with the thought that it's not all about increasing supply. We also have to decrease the demand for travel. I agree that we have yet to tap deeply into the possibilities for telecommuting and believe it's part of the solution. Just a part, though: It will be difficult for construction workers and plumbers and furniture movers to make their living through fiber optics.

Homer presides over the road-building apparatus, yet he believes that Virginia's future depends in part on linking land use and transportation planning.

The current problem, he said, is that "people live over here and work over there."

Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, thinks the financial crisis in transportation could have a positive result: It could force us to become more focused and more creative in applying the resources we have toward long-term congestion relief, rather than simply toward building more stuff.

He recalls an old saying that could apply to our current transportation problems: We've run out of money. Now it's time to think.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in the Extras. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer's name and home community. Personal responses are not always possible. To contact Dr. Gridlock:

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