Bridging the East-West Divide Is Key to Solving Transportation Crisis, Officials Say

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 1, 2009

In a region where forecasting the weather or betting on the Redskins can be risky, you never can go wrong predicting where traffic will choke to a halt every weekday morning: The bridges crossing into Virginia and the Capital Beltway's outer loop as it arches west through Montgomery County.

Although fighting traffic into the heart of the city is no fun, the area's major morning commuter headache has evolved during the past two decades into one from east to west. Every weekday morning, more than 104,000 vehicles clog those routes, sending ripples through the region's rush-hour traffic. Stopping them could end the misery of Washington being the nation's second-most congested urban area.

"We spent $2.4 billion to widen the Wilson Bridge to 12 lanes, and I'm not convinced that's going to solve the problem," said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

The problem, as Schwartz and others see it, began during the 1990s, when job growth to the west of Interstate 95 outpaced that in the east by 20 to 1. Since the turn of the century, that has slowed to a hair under 3 to 1.

All the while, traffic got worse as people who lived in Prince George's, Charles and eastern Montgomery and Fairfax counties drove west to work.

Too many cars were going in the same direction at the same time, and there were too few bridges and highways to get them there. There is general agreement that the solutions are complicated, expensive or both: build more highways (called "capacity" in traffic-speak), persuade some people to travel at a different time of day, encourage reverse-commuting scenarios and use of mass transit, or create jobs closer to where people work.

"How do we relieve the congestion?" asked Ronald Kirby, director of transportation planning for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. "Well, rather than widening the Beltway, it would be nice if we had more jobs in the eastern part of the region."

The first major notice of the east-west divide came in a report by the Brookings Institution a decade ago. Brookings said the region's economy couldn't be defined by the common metropolitan calculus of urban poverty vs. suburban wealth but rather by a north-south axis along I-95, with 16th Street NW connecting the line as it passed through the District.

Kirby attributes part of the rush toward the west as "the herd mentality" and the perception that schools and amenities are better there. Schwartz said the "race factor is undeniable" when corporations opted to locate in the largely white western suburbs rather than the majority black Prince George's County.

Brookings summed up the need for more balanced growth 10 years ago in a single sentence: "We need to grow smarter."

Heads nodded in agreement. Smart was good.

Then the battles and skirmishes over who was smarter and what was best were renewed. There is no better example than the east-west Intercounty Connector being built across the center of Montgomery County and into Prince George's. After half a century of planning and decades in court, with trees now cleared and concrete being poured, the bitter argument continues over whether the $2.6 billion project is money well spent, compatible with the environment and, ultimately, an antidote for regional traffic congestion.

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