Noting a three-year program by the Greater Washington Board of Trade to act as a catalyst for improving the area's transportation network, the new president of the business advocacy organization pledged this week to intensify the board's effort.
Focusing on transportation issues is essential for the Board of Trade, said Peter F. O'Malley. Transportation, he added, is "a key need for any business -- established or prospective."
A safe and efficient transportation network is important to many constituencies, business included. Transportation, after all, is critical to the flow of people, goods and services. In short, it is critical to the development and continued growth of the region's economy.
That brings us to another goal on the board's agenda for 1986: regional cooperation and coordination, which, says O'Malley, will be expanded under his tenure as president of the 1,400-member business organization.
"For three years now, the Board of Trade has aggressively sought to bring transportation to the forefront of discussion by elected officials and the public alike," O'Malley noted at his inaugural press conference this week.
The board has made progress but still has "a long way to go," O'Malley added.
Two years ago, under then newly elected president John T. (Til) Hazel, the Board of Trade listed transportation improvements as a major part of its long-range program to enhance business and the quality of life. As Hazel later observed, the board had concluded that transportation improvements "had not kept pace with economic and other needs, and the time had come to put forth some options to better the system."
Efforts by the Board of Trade and others notwithstanding, transportation improvements continue to lag economic development and dispersion of the population in the region.
In the two years since the board placed transportation high on its long-range policy agenda, the area has experienced explosive economic growth. Development of commercial and industrial space downtown and in the suburbs is proceeding at a record pace in anticipation of continued strong demand for space by new businesses coming to the area and by existing firms that need to expand.
Last year, more than 79,000 jobs were added to the area's economy. In the suburbs, where 64,000 jobs were added, virtually every employment category in the private sector experienced growth. And in the District, where unemployment has been substantially higher than in the suburbs, more than 15,000 jobs were added.
While the economy has improved, a strong case can be made that transportation deficiencies have worsened since the Board of Trade first identified the issue as a critical regional problem. Not only is completion of the Metrorail system jeopardized by proposed cuts in federal funding, but also building the planned 103-mile system won't change many commuter patterns.
The District still is considered the center of commerce in the region, but recent studies confirm a dramatic shift of jobs to suburban employment centers. Some are accessible to the Metrorail system; most are not. Some jobs can be reached by bus; many cannot. Employers in the suburbs have difficulty filling certain jobs, but a large labor pool in the District can't get to those jobs because of inadequate transportation. Rapid transit was supposed to facilitate travel to employment centers downtown and reduce the number of automobile trips. Boasts of higher Metro ridership notwithstanding, automobile traffic has increased during rush-hour periods downtown.
Meanwhile, narrow farm roads and inadequate two-lane highways have been made nearly obsolete by maddening traffic gridlock patterns near burgeoning suburban employment centers. And the Capital Beltway -- where the flow of people, goods and services is, perhaps, most critical to the area -- often resembles a 60-mile demolition-derby circuit or a massive parking strip for commuters and transients.
There are no studies, according to Board of Trade officials, that show the impact on businesses -- or the entire economy, for that matter -- from lost man-hours, lower productivity and delays in deliveries of supplies and consumer goods caused by traffic tieups and the lack of a better transportation network. It's safe to assume, nonetheless, that everybody pays a higher price for traffic-related problems.
O'Malley vowed that the Board of Trade will lobby "as vocally and as intensely as possible" for completion of Metro. The board also plans to convene a conference on transportation issues in March, bringing together professionals, elected officials and community leaders.
The challenge for the board and the rest of the business community is to get local officials to put aside parochial interests and support regional cooperation on transportation issues. Growth of the area's economy may hinge on business' handling of the challenge.