By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 1, 2009; B01
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.
Proponents see its virtue in helping relieve the dreaded morning crawl around the outer loop of the Beltway; critics see it encouraging more job creation in western Montgomery and Virginia, putting more "easterners" in vehicles headed in that direction.
In a region where the average driver wastes 62 hours a year stuck in traffic, according to one recent study, finding ways to get people out of cars seems the "smart" option to planners such as Kirby and Schwartz.
"If you want to reduce congestion, you only need a 5 percent reduction in the number of cars on the road," Schwartz said. "Just taking a few of the cars per lane per hour off the road can make a huge difference."
That was the experience of Dick Clarke, who commuted for years from Annapolis to his job as a computer consultant in Arlington County.
"It had been getting worse and worse for years," he said. "Then it changed last summer when gas prices peaked. It was amazing how a 10 percent reduction in traffic made things so much easier. It was like another world."
In an austere era when billions of dollars aren't likely to be available for major new urban rail initiatives, projects such as the light-rail Purple Line connecting Bethesda to New Carrollton ($1.68 billion) and the Metro Silver Line to Dulles International Airport ($5.2 billion) that are intended to reduce east-west vehicle traffic are not going to be replicated any time soon. And even their budgets have yet to be fully funded.
"As we look ahead, we're not going to have the extra billions to throw at transportation, and what we do is going to have to be spent on maintenance of aging infrastructure, like Metro," Schwartz said.
The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments projects regional growth will expand by 65,000 people per year until 2030, meaning tens of thousands more vehicles will arrive each year. Planners for the council, which represents 21 local jurisdictions, are among those who argue for a sustained effort to maximize existing mass transit and to encourage job development around mass transit hubs, most notably within walking distance of 15 Metro stations in Prince George's.
"We need to build satellite office hubs, like the one in Crystal City and elsewhere in Virginia, around those stations in Prince George's," Kirby said. "It's in everybody's best interest because the west already has more development than it can handle."
Satellite office parks clustered around Metro stations would provide a double benefit for transit system revenue. Kirby points to the example of Crystal City, where Metro riders from the outer suburbs get off for work there every morning, immediately replaced by others headed for jobs downtown.
"So, Metro sells the seat twice," he said.
Those same Metro-clustered office hubs could encourage a reverse commute, on trains now virtually empty, for those who are attracted to life in the District.
"Metro gets more ridership without adding capacity," Kirby said.
Even better than ringing transit hubs with office buildings, Schwartz said, would be developing white-collar jobs closer to where employees live. People who live on the eastern side of the regional divide spend up to 40 minutes longer commuting than those in the west, according to a 2006 COG study.
The crown jewel for development in the east is seen as New Carrollton, the confluence of three rail lines (Metro, MARC and Amtrak), and three major highways (I-95, Route 50 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway). Private developers have proposed building a 24-story office tower near the train station in hope of luring the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services -- and 5,000 jobs -- from its current complex in Rockville.
"In Prince George's there are more parking lots at Metro stations than there are tall buildings," Schwartz said. "Every incentive has to be put on development at those 15 Metro stations. And on the west side, the jobs need to go adjacent to transit wherever possible, instead of scattered in places that only can be reached by car."