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We’re stuck in traffic and jammed aboard trains, and we really want to know if anybody has a way out of this mess, a road map for solutions within our lifetimes. I asked Richard Parsons, president of the Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance, and Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, to define the problem, propose solutions and tell us how we would know if their ideas worked. Their routes to relief follow different maps.

From Parsons: Ask any Washingtonian to define the region’s transportation problem and the answer is clear: Too much traffic congestion. The Texas Transportation Institute reports that we’ve even surpassed Los Angeles in our daily traffic misery. Congestion costs us in many ways: Wasted time, money and fuel; more frequent vehicle repairs; lost productivity and added stress from long travel times that are almost impossible to predict. Congestion also has profound impacts on our regional air quality, local economy and quality of life. Yet, reducing congestion rarely makes it to the top of our regional priority list.

Why? In part, because we’ve clouded the debate, allowing popular myths and wishful thinking to supersede sound research and expert analysis. A prime example is the myth that “we can’t do anything about traffic.” Nothing could be further from the truth, as we’ve witnessed with the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

Those who solve traffic problems for a living (trained urban planners and traffic engineers), tell us that we failed to build the transit and road capacity we needed to support the last three decades of population and job growth in our region. The spider web of transit and road connections that was supposed to link major urban and suburban centers was never built. Those missing links create most of the major choke-points we see today.

Experts tell us we can reduce congestion significantly in the next 20 years, if we set clear priorities around regional transit and road improvements that do the most to reduce congestion and improve travel times. Improving Metro’s reliability, adding highway capacity to remove bottlenecks; adding new suburb-to-suburb transit service like the Purple Line, Corridor Cities Transitway and bus rapid-transit systems; and continuing to concentrate housing and job growth within walking distance of transit stations are all part of the solution. There is no one silver bullet.

Assertions that we can solve all of our region’s problems with more transit and better land use, without major new investments in our regional highway network, are simply not supported by study data.

Just this year, the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board ’s “Aspirations Scenario” found the combined effects of more-compact, transit-oriented development and a new regional toll-lane and bus rapid-transit network on highways like the Capital Beltway would reduce total vehicle hours of delay in our region by 12.5 percent. They also found that higher-density, transit-oriented development by itself actually increases vehicle hours of delay. Previous studies by the Montgomery County Planning Board also show even the most aggressive smart-growth land-use policies, by themselves, have little impact on future travel demand. That’s why we need a holistic approach.

Regional leaders should expand their focus beyond the “Aspirations Scenario” and run their traffic models on a wider range of regional transit and highway connections that would more seamlessly link the Maryland and Virginia suburbs together, along with providing better links to the District. This would allow us to see if more-direct transit and road connections between major activity centers would further reduce congestion and delays. Even minor traffic reductions can have a big impact on travel times. (That relief you feel every August comes from a 5-to-6 percent reduction in traffic).

If we moved in this direction, “rush hour” would not last most of the workday; the time it takes to get anywhere by car or transit would be shorter and more predictable; when you see a “congestion ahead” sign, there might actually be an alternate route; and our region would be a more livable, sustainable and economically vibrant place.

Now that’s a change worth fighting for.

From Schwartz: Our congestion problem was created by bad land-use planning and poor location decisions by major employers.

We’ve failed to provide enough housing close to jobs while extending development more than 50 miles beyond downtown. The jobs-housing imbalance between east and west chokes the Capital Beltway. Many communities have been built so that residents have no choice but to drive and children can no longer walk or bicycle to school.

Meanwhile, the Department of Defense is moving more than 20,000 jobs from transit-accessible locations to areas without adequate roads or transit. Virginia subsidized Northrop Grumman even as the company rejected a Metro station location for a site on the overcrowded Beltway. Universities and hospitals are opening campuses in isolated locations without adequate transit or walkable community designs.

In this environment, building more roads and transit without addressing development patterns is a recipe for failure. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on a study finding that expanding roads in metropolitan areas increases traffic after just a few years. An outer beltway would not relieve traffic, but like most new beltways, it would spark development in undeveloped rural areas.

We need to use our scarce resources, first, to fix potholed roads, crumbling bridges and our aging Metro system and, second, to create a more energy-efficient land-use and transportation system. If we don’t offer alternatives to so much driving, then high oil prices will keep eroding family finances and threaten our economic and national security. High gas prices and changing demographics — young workers and downsizing empty-nesters and retirees — are increasing demand for more walkable, convenient and transit-accessible locations.

Build a network of transit-oriented communities. A network of walkable, mixed-use, compact neighborhoods at Metro and commuter rail stations will be far more cost-effective than merely adding transportation capacity.

Reinvent commercial strip corridors. Redevelop thousands of acres of parking lots and one-story buildings as part of that network.

Address the east-west jobs divide. Locate employment at 15 Metro stations in Prince George’s County; Wheaton and Glenmont in eastern Montgomery County; and Route 1 in Prince William and Fairfax counties.

Locate homes in or near major job centers. For example in Tysons Corner, the Red Line/Interstate 270 corridor and Loudoun’s Route 28 corridor.

Locate jobs in centers with transit and mixed uses. Maximize peak-hour transit trips on rail, buses, vanpools and carpools, and take advantage of reverse commute opportunities.

Enhance neighborhood accessibility. Invest in walking and bicycling routes to schools, libraries, stores and parks, creating alternatives to driving on traffic-choked arterial roads.

Fix major commuter corridors. Simply widening corridors such as I-66, I-95, I-270 and Route 5 will fuel more-distant development and even longer commutes. Focus on express buses with dedicated lanes, combined with zoning to manage development in outer areas.

Finish Dulles Rail and the Purple Line. Tie them to well-designed development and add Purple Line crossings of the Potomac at both ends of the Beltway.

Commuter rail. Invest in VRE, MARC and Amtrak.

If we can accomplish these tasks, our future will include more transportation choices and more convenient access to work, school and services.

We’re stuck in traffic and jammed aboard trains, and we really want to know if anybody has a way out of this mess, a road map for solutions within our lifetimes. I asked Richard Parsons, president of the Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance, and Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, to define the problem, propose solutions and tell us how we would know if their ideas worked. Their routes to relief follow different maps.

— Robert Thomson