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Council plans public survey on regional toll road project

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 16, 2010; B05

A fresh blueprint for the region that calls for 1,650 miles of toll lanes and more mixed-use land development in the suburbs was unveiled to predictable reaction on Wednesday.

Advocates for more and better highways generally embraced the portion of the plan that recommends them. Proponents of smarter land use and more mass transit gave thumbs up to proposals for more walkable communities and thumbs down to almost $52 billion in construction to create toll roads.

But how the grand plan will take shape depends less on the weight of those at either end of the teeter-totter than it does on commuters and residents whose weight sits at the balance point.

"You want to take a look at the entire range of options and see where you get public support," said Ron Kirby, transportation planning director for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG), a body of elected and appointed officials from throughout the region.

COG now will begin to survey the public and hold focus groups to see what average people in one of the nation's most congested regions are ready to do about it.

The arguments for toll lanes include that they will raise revenue that could be spent on mass transit, provide drivers with options and reduce congestion by encouraging people to commute at off-peak hours. Proponents also hold out the option that they might be used to offset gas taxes.

The challenge, however, is that there is little public support for converting existing free lanes into toll lanes. The $51.5 billion price tag covers the cost of building miles of new lanes on virtually all of the major highways in the region. The COG plan says that 96 percent of that cost would be recovered in tolls.

Another critical component of the proposal emphasizes development of "walkable" communities around suburban hubs served by Metro, particularly in Prince George's County. Ideally these hubs would offer jobs, housing and shopping, reducing the dependence of residents on cars and encouraging a reverse commute for District residents.

The plan and the dilemma of urban planning, congestion relief and how to spend tax dollars was best summed up by Bob Chase of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance.

"Bottom line, this is very complicated," he said. "It's going to require a lot more discussion and analysis to determine how these pieces will improve mobility for most people at an affordable price."

Chase, whose group promotes development through improvement to the highway systems, found things to like in the COG plan but warned that no plan is complete unless it includes creation of new transit corridors and new Potomac River bridges outside of the Capital Beltway.

Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, called the COG price tag for toll lanes, "jaw-dropping."

He said toll lanes would encourage more traffic, increase emissions and promote more suburban sprawl.

"Rather than justify the exorbitantly expensive toll lanes, the COG study demonstrates the benefits of walkable, bikeable, mixed-use and transit-oriented communities," Schwartz said. "Proximity, not speed and distance mobility, is the best means of addressing regional traffic and pollution."

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