New D.C. regional business group stirs unease as it pushes for area cooperation

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By Robert McCartney
Saturday, September 25, 2010; 10:57 PM

A new, high-powered business group is ruffling feathers in the local establishment as it pushes the fragmented Washington region to cooperate more to deal with such issues as excessive traffic, inadequate education and imbalanced economic growth.

The 2030 Group, led by wealthy, suburban-based developers, wants to promote debate over whether to build a stronger regionwide governance structure - perhaps one that could find new tax revenue needed for roads, Metro and other purposes.

The group, created in April, hosted a workshop Monday where those ideas were kicked around by 36 elite business, government and civic leaders at the University of Maryland's College Park campus.

Some of the proposals were fuzzy, and no conclusions were reached. Instead, they achieved "universal agreement for continuing this discussion," said 2030 Group President Robert Buchanan, a commercial developer based in Gaithersburg.

The group deserves applause for prodding the region to talk seriously about putting some muscle into regional cooperation. But its initiative has stirred some unease among existing institutions seeking to chart the area's future, including the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, the Greater Washington Board of Trade and the Coalition for Smarter Growth. They all sent top representatives to the workshop but don't necessarily agree with the 2030 Group's approach or goals.

Some are irked because they worry the group is duplicating work that's already been done and could be a distraction. In addition, COG and the smart growth coalition have criticized the 2030 Group for being overwhelmingly white and male and thus not reflecting the region's diversity.

There's also a subtle but unmistakable fault line between the 2030 Group and the region's longtime business and civic organizations over the crucial question of how to invest transportation dollars. The tension arises over what overall strategy the area should pursue in coming decades to absorb the estimated 1.7 million new residents expected to come here by the year 2030. (Yes, that's where the group got its name.)

Boiled down, the difference is over how much to rely on building new roads in the outer suburbs to solve the region's traffic problems.

The 2030 Group leans toward more roads. An academic study that it commissioned faults the region for failing to follow through on past plans to build new roads parallel to the Beltway and to add bridges across the Potomac.

"Twenty-five years ago, roads had been put in anticipating growth. In the next 20 years, our growth is going to double again, but we don't have the infrastructure to handle it," Buchanan said.

The group's toughest critics say more roads are just a recipe for endless miles of clogged highways linking ugly strip malls and residential projects. They want to focus instead on transit-oriented development, also known as smart growth, which means building dense, walkable communities clustered around Metro stations. That's the model recommended overall in COG's blueprint for the area's future, called Region Forward.

"Our council of governments, like other regions, has recognized that . . . land use, urban design and the jobs-housing balance play the greatest role in addressing our travel congestion. It's not just about building projects," said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. He participated in the Monday workshop but stressed that "shouldn't be seen as my endorsement of the 2030 Group."


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