Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, makes many of my readers angry.
They don’t understand why his advocacy group wants them to live near work, or pay tolls on Interstate 66, or just get out of their cars and take public transit. So I invited him to be my guest for an online chat.
This is an edited transcript of his responses to questions I posed.
DG: There’s a back-and-forth in my reader letters that goes like this:
A traveler writes to complain about the amount of time spent in traffic. A reader responds by saying that the traveler should live closer to where she works. Another traveler writes back to say, “How many times do you expect us to move? People change jobs. Also, spouses may have jobs in very different locations.”
Is it realistic to expect that we can ease our transportation problems by having a great many people live close to their workplaces?
Schwartz: We simply cannot address our traffic problems without addressing where and how we grow as a region. If we keep spreading out where we live and scattering jobs in isolated office parks, we’ll keep adding to congestion. Living closer to work is one piece of the solution but we know it won’t work for everyone.
We believe that the first keys to reducing the burdens of traffic are the continued revitalization of the city, and a network of transit-oriented centers and communities. The more people have the opportunity to live and/or work in a mixed-use transit-oriented center, the more they will have the opportunity to drive less or not at all, improving the roads for those whose living or working situation doesn’t allow them to use transit or live closer to work.
Millennials and downsizing empty-nesters are all seeking more urban, walkable and transit-accessible homes, and among families, we see strong demand for homes closer in — even if the homes are smaller.
It’s also important to consider total housing and transportation costs when choosing a home. A pioneering tool called the Housing + Transportation Cost calculator shows that the cost of a long commute can make what seems like a more affordable house 25 or 30 miles from the District less affordable when housing and transportation costs are considered together.
DG: The coalition supports the Virginia government’s plan to create high-occupancy toll lanes at rush hours on I-66 inside the Capital Beltway.
Many long-distance commuters fear this plan, because of the variable toll that will be imposed in both directions. According to a Virginia Department of Transportation estimate, the peak tolls could be $7 eastbound in the morning and $9 westbound in the afternoon.
Is it fair to raise their commuting costs like this?
Schwartz: Commuters are already paying a high cost in lost time with their families and on the job. Those hours stuck in traffic add up when you look at your salary on an hourly basis.
The VDOT proposal will improve conditions for everyone, providing a faster, more reliable commute. It will guarantee a peak hour speed of at least 45 mph and, probably better, make the commute time more consistent and reliable. It will keep the revenue in public hands so we can invest the money in more transit in the corridor (more buses and rail cars), and it will move more people per hour in cars, carpools and transit.
This is really the best alternative for I-66 inside the Beltway. Widening would require years of construction and traffic delays. It would cost hundreds of millions of tax dollars instead of the $40 million proposed for the tolling equipment and software.
DG: Many commuters on both sides of the Potomac are begging for relief from the tortuous trip on the west side of the Beltway and across the American Legion Bridge.
Virginia transportation officials want to talk to their Maryland counterparts about upgrading the Legion Bridge and possibly adding HOT lanes on its approaches.
Does that make sense to you? Why wouldn’t commuters be better off if the two states cooperated on a new bridge west of the Beltway?
Schwartz: It’s good news that Virginia wants to talk to Maryland about the Legion Bridge. My group helped spark the first such discussion between the Fairfax Board of Supervisors and Montgomery County Council two years ago, and we understand they are setting up to talk again, in addition to discussions between VDOT and the Maryland Department of Transportation.
Extending the HOT lanes and adding express bus services in those lanes would allow more people to move in the peak hour to the job centers on each side of the river.
The western bridge would be a waste of a couple of billion dollars. VDOT’s recent bridge study showed just 5 percent of the Virginia commuters to Maryland who use the Legion Bridge are making the so-called U-shaped commute from western Fairfax or Loudoun to upper Montgomery or Frederick. That means for all others, the Legion Bridge is the best route, and traffic fixes need to happen there. Spending $1 billion to $2 billion upriver would divert scarce tax dollars needed for the Legion Bridge.
See the full transcript, with more questions from readers, at live.washingtonpost.com/gridlock0914.html.