An alliance of the region’s top chief executives is urging ambitious, costly steps to improve commuter rail, bus networks and other transportation systems to reduce chronic traffic congestion and bind together the “super region” stretching from Baltimore to Richmond.
In a report released Monday after 16 months of study, the Greater Washington Partnership says that residents should be able to hop on a train in the morning in the District, Baltimore or Richmond, attend a meeting in one of the other cities and be back in time for lunch.
Among the recommendations, it wants more dedicated bus lanes, coordinated traffic signals, bike trails, variable tolling on highways and possibly requiring drivers to pay a fee to enter downtown Washington.
The 40-page “Capital Region Blueprint for Regional Mobility” is likely to shape discussions about how to fix the traffic- clogged roads that are one of the biggest headaches — and barriers to economic growth — in the corridor of urban centers along Interstate 95.
In general, the report leans toward greater reliance on public transit and technological innovations to reduce traffic, rather than building more highways.
But top priorities include adding tolled express lanes to the Capital Beltway, Interstate 270 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway in Maryland, similar to those in Virginia. The report also says it’s vital to expand the Capital Beltway’s American Legion Bridge across the Potomac, as well as the 114-year-old Long Bridge for rail traffic between the District and Arlington.
The price is high. The study foresees additional costs of $7 billion a year through 2045, on top of already-planned spending of $12.3 billion a year. That works out to an extra $686 a year for each of the region’s 10.2 million residents.
It also would require a historic leap in regional cooperation, such as unifying the Maryland and Virginia commuter rail systems, and uniting all the bus systems in the Washington metro area. It didn’t specify how either should be done.
The alternative is bleak, according to the study. Without such changes, by 2040 residents in the super region will spend half their travel time stuck in traffic, up from a third today.
The high cost “should not be a surprise to anyone,” said Jason Miller, chief executive of the partnership.
“The United States, and particularly our region, are underinvesting in our infrastructure. If we want to achieve the lifestyle, the place, the economic opportunity that we all want, we need to do better,” Miller said. “This notion that we should just accept dilapidation as the current state of business, why should we accept that?”
Some elements of the study were made public in preliminary, partial reports, including ones on tolling and buses. The new, comprehensive package seems destined to be influential partly because the partnership, founded two years ago, includes chief executives of many of the region’s largest corporations, including Northrop Grumman, Dominion Energy, the Carlyle Group, Capital One, Monumental Sports and Entertainment, MedImmune and Under Armour.
“In the more than 30 years that I’ve been in the region working on transportation, this is the first truly CEO-led work that spans the entire arc of the region, Baltimore to Richmond,” said John Porcari, a former deputy U.S. transportation secretary who is on the partnership’s steering committee.
Porcari said Amazon’s recent decision to place one of its two East Coast headquarters and 25,000 jobs in Arlington makes action more urgent. (Amazon founder and CEO Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
“Amazon takes the whole discussion from chronic to acute,” he said.
To build support for its plan, the partnership hopes to create a broad coalition of business groups, labor unions, environmentalists and civic organizations similar to the one that helped win dedicated funding for Metro this year.
The group says transportation must be improved in ways that reduce the gap between rich and poor, and that more affordable housing should be built near public transit, to increase opportunity for lower-income people.
“Households in poverty are almost two and a half times more likely to live in areas with poor transit access to jobs and low vehicle ownership rates,” the report says.
To keep cars moving on interstates, it urges greater use of what it calls “performance-driven tolling,” in which vehicles with single occupants are charged tolls that rise or fall depending on congestion.
Such tolls are already in place in express lanes added in much of Northern Virginia, such as the nearly year-old 66 Express Lanes. The partnership wants a single system adopted throughout the region, with some lanes still available free, and no tolls on express lanes for buses or high-occupancy vehicles.
The report doesn’t take a position on the long-standing debate over whether to build a bridge upriver from the American Legion span, but says fixing the American Legion Bridge must come first.
To reduce gridlock in downtown Washington, the report wants a study of “congestion pricing zones,” or charging drivers a fee to enter parts of the city. Such zones have reduced traffic by 20 to 30 percent in London, Stockholm and Singapore.
A centerpiece of the plan is improving commuter rail and bus service, two networks that the partnership says the region has neglected.
For commuter rail, a goal is to allow commuters to travel through the District between Virginia and Maryland without having to change trains. At present, travelers have to switch between the two states’ commuter rail services, Virginia Rail Express and MARC.
Allowing “one seat” travel requires upgrading facilities at Union Station and L’Enfant Plaza so trains can go through in either direction.
“The potential of commuter rail in the region is pretty significant,” Miller said. “It doesn’t have the frequency, reliability or speed to be the kind of option it should be.”
With buses, the partnership says the region should give them priority by creating dedicated lanes and adjusting traffic signals.
“The region hasn’t necessarily been putting forward steps to make the bus competitive,” said Joe McAndrew, the partnership’s director of transportation policy. “We have buses sitting behind cars in a worsening congested system.”
Porcari urged merging the various jurisdictions’ individual bus networks.
“Do we really need separate bus systems in Prince George’s, in Arlington and Fairfax?” he said. “For the money we’re spending now, we could have a much better, truly coherent regional bus system.”
He added: “Here’s where the region could act like grown-ups and a true region.”