Greater Greater Washington

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Surprise surprise: "experts" picked by road lobbyists put road building at top of priority list

The 2030 Group, an advocacy organization funded by some of Virginia's longtime proponents of sprawl-inducing highway development, came out with a thoroughly unsurprising "survey" today that recommends the very same projects the organizers have pushed for years.


Photo by poeloq on Flickr.

The campaign engaged two of the region's biggest advocates for the unpopular Outer Beltway, Bob Chase and Rich Parsons, to conduct what they call a "groundbreaking" survey. Chase and Parsons then selected and interviewed 45 unnamed "transportation experts."

It should come as no surprise that these anonymous experts generally shared the exact transportation priority agenda that Chase and Parsons have less anonymously been already promoting: a new circumferential freeway that will do nothing to solve the real mobility problems in the area.

The 2030 Group's high-powered PR firm, Dewey Square, touted the report yesterday in a press release that this would be "a first-ever comprehensive study of the most critical transportation priorities." But the survey does not actually study the transportation priorities. Instead, it only takes a poll of some anonymous people and then advocates for setting priorities on that basis.

In other news, a groundbreaking poll of "transportation experts" I just polled via Gmail Chat overwhelmingly agreed that a different set of priorities is more appropriate.

Chase and Parsons call for "performance-based measures" for transportation projects over "parochialism and politics." Absolutely. But as we've seen with the debates in Congress, the devil is in choosing the right measures.

Developers who own land far from people's jobs have been long promoting a "congestion" metric, which measures only the speed of automotive traffic, not the length of people's commutes. The Obama administration, meanwhile, has been working on more comprehensive "livability" standards which look at the actual quality of life that results from transportation investment, not just the net increase in paved miles.

Far better studies of regional priorities include those from the Council of Governments, whose scenario studies looked not only at vehicle speeds but overall land use and found that the biggest gains in improving commutes came from responsible land use, like developing underutilized Metro stations, addressing the east-west job divide in the region, and revitalizing existing, aging commercial corridors.

The COG Region Forward report, which all 22 area jurisdictions endorsed, shows that addressing land use and the imbalance between jobs and housing, along with supportive transit and transit-oriented development, are the top priorities. COG's scenario studies demonstrated that better land use planning offers the biggest bang for the buck in reducing the amount we have to drive.

These initiatives, as it happens, also involved many people who haven't already placed themselves at one extreme end of the spectrum on our region's transportation debate.

It's laughably easy to find ridiculous methodological holes in the survey. For example, only 9% of the experts are from DC despite there being a far greater share of commuting activity to, from, and within DC.

The anonymous so-called-experts first list of priorities put transit first. But then, Chase and Parsons asked them to pick "the single most important" project. That wording inherently steers people's thinking to "megaprojects," single large facilities like roads or whole new transit lines instead of the real places that can have the most bang for the buck, like local streetcar lines, roundabouts to smooth traffic, infill rail stations, bus priority, ped/bike investments and more.

But there should be no need to even enumerate the transparent lengths to which the authors go to steer conclusions toward their own preconceived ends. Regional leaders should laugh at this report simply because it pawns off an survey of 45 anonymous people handpicked by Chase and Parsons as the "First Ever Comprehensive Regional Transportation Study."

One useful nugget in the report is a list of current regional priorities, as some of the respondents saw it. For those of us who have monitored transportation planning in the region, these are indeed the projects state and local officials mention most often.

  1. Corridor Cities Transitway
  2. Purple Line
  3. BRT or express bus network
  4. I-270 HOT lanes
  5. I-495 HOT lanes
  6. MARC service expansion
  7. Metro core capacity expansion
  8. Metro system maintenance
  9. DC streetcars
  10. Silver Line
This list is Maryland-heavy, and Chase and Parsons note that more of their Maryland participants could identify clear priorities. (DC also has clear priorities, but they had relatively few DC participants, pushing its projects low on the overall list).

Chase and Parsons say this means the region lacks a clear set of priorities, and therefore everyone should adopt their priorities. But elected officials and staffs spend considerable time every year developing detailed priority lists to go into the region's Constrained Long-Range Plan. Virginia created the Transaction 2030 plan a few years ago and is working on an update, Transaction 2040.

That report lists far more than 3 or 4 megaprojects, because a few huge projects don't do much to really address transportation. Northern Virginia is a big place, and really improving mobility involves many smaller projects, addressing individual road bottlenecks, adding options like transit, carpooling, walking and bicycling, and maintaining our existing roads and transit so maintenance breakdowns don't happen and cause delays.

Virginia's priorities also feel more muddled today because local governments and current Secretary of Transportation don't agree on what the priorities should be. They should continue to debate the issues and work toward consensus. Chase, Parsons and their deep-pocketed funders, who would personally benefit from more sprawling development in outer areas, are just frustrated that this process of discussion isn't coalescing around the agenda they happen to have.

David Alpert is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Greater Greater Washington and Greater Greater Education. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He loves the area which is, in many ways, greater than those others, and wants to see it become even greater. 

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@DA: rather than attack the method and anonymity of the survey, you could focus on the parts you agree with. Many of the strongest findings (better WMATA maintenance, for example) are in accord with what you advocate.

by goldfish on Jun 16, 2011 12:36 pm • linkreport

Oboe-Schiller Index of Inside-the-Beltway Home Values up +.89% on today's news.

by oboe on Jun 16, 2011 12:38 pm • linkreport

Oy. There's not a single dollar figure anywhere in that report. These kinds of reports are what you'd expect from a toddler that wants every toy in the store.

by Adam L on Jun 16, 2011 12:41 pm • linkreport

goldfish: Why? If someone decided to claim they are the dictator and take over in a coup, and supported Metro maintenance, should I support them because of it?

by David Alpert on Jun 16, 2011 12:41 pm • linkreport

Chase and Parsons call for "performance-based measures" for transportation projects over "parochialism and politics."

This reminds me of the people who say they want "smart growth" but then describe it as more roads and more single-family homes.

by Neil Flanagan on Jun 16, 2011 12:41 pm • linkreport

Oh, and more transit service with lower rates.

by Neil Flanagan on Jun 16, 2011 12:42 pm • linkreport

@DA: you can make of it what you will. Rather than "dictator," I detect reasonable people with a range of reasonable opinions. The priority of improving maintenance of Metro, and increasing the number of bridges across the Potomac, are reasonable. You could point out that the relatively low priority of DC streetcars is a result of having fewer DC experts; but the fact that they are on the list to begin with is something you can use in your favor in your agenda.

by goldfish on Jun 16, 2011 12:48 pm • linkreport

David, We are lucky to have you. Keep up the good fight.

by appreciative on Jun 16, 2011 12:53 pm • linkreport

You just sound bitter Dave.

by Steve on Jun 16, 2011 12:56 pm • linkreport

Oy. There's not a single dollar figure anywhere in that report. These kinds of reports are what you'd expect from a toddler that wants every toy in the store.

It's also a pretty good illustration of why decoupling the transit priorities of DC proper from that of the suburbs might make sense. There's a case to be made that streetcars/light rail will have *the* greatest positive impact for DC residents. Of course, if we "go forward in the spirit of regional cooperation" that will happen right after the last square inch of asphalt has been laid over the last unpaved square inch of suburbia.

by oboe on Jun 16, 2011 12:57 pm • linkreport

@goldfish: The priority of...increasing the number of bridges across the Potomac [is] reasonable.

Not to me, it isn't.

(Not to these people either: http://mocoalliance.org/wp-content/upload/Bridge-crossing-report.pdf)

by Miriam on Jun 16, 2011 1:08 pm • linkreport

What's interesting is that the report is weak on land-use restrictions, as though we live in a world where land use and transportation are separate, dare I say "parochial" worlds.

In fact, rather than asking why we need more bridges and more roads and various far-flung Metro extensions, we should address the very cause: why do we distribute our jobs and housing in a way that causes all this gridlock, distant commutes, and frustration in the first place?

Yet somehow, these unnamed "experts" place new Potomac River bridges as the single most important regional improvement!

by Eric Fidler on Jun 16, 2011 1:14 pm • linkreport

Am I the only one who laughed at the word groundbreaking for this post?

by ET on Jun 16, 2011 1:34 pm • linkreport

I wonder how many people against more river bridges would change their tune if the bridge in question was for a Purple Line extension between Bethesda and Tysons...

by Froggie on Jun 16, 2011 1:42 pm • linkreport

Oddly enough, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute's paid-for poll finding massive numbers of DC residents supporting tax increases didn't get a similar sarcastic review.

by Fritz on Jun 16, 2011 1:54 pm • linkreport

@Froggie: I wonder how many people against more river bridges would change their tune if the bridge in question was for a Purple Line extension between Bethesda and Tysons...

Speaking only for myself, what I'm opposed to is another highway bridge across the Potomac. How is the idea of a bridge for the Purple Line, which Bob Chase and Rich Parsons are not (to my knowledge) proposing, relevant to this opposition?

by Miriam on Jun 16, 2011 2:40 pm • linkreport

Drat. End italics.

by Miriam on Jun 16, 2011 2:41 pm • linkreport

Fritz: First, it was a real poll by a polling firm, not a bunch of people they found personally and asked. And second, everyone does know they are an advocacy group. They weren't claiming that it was some sort of special group of "tax experts."

by David Alpert on Jun 16, 2011 2:46 pm • linkreport

I wonder the outcome of the constant fight between various groups supposedly concerned about the same issues.

Group A thinks Group B is this
C thinks E is this.
A thinks they are better "experts" than C, D, and F.
C thinks they're the only group concerned about...

and it continues ad infinitum....

Everybody's a cynic but geez, "'experts'" picked by cycling advocates put biking infrastructure at top of priority list."

by HogWash on Jun 16, 2011 2:47 pm • linkreport

@Miriam It's relevant because some entities have a blanket opposition to *ANY* new bridge over the Potomac, regardless of mode. If commenters don't specify otherwise, one has to assume those against new bridges fall under this category.

by Froggie on Jun 16, 2011 4:15 pm • linkreport

@DA,

What evidence do you have that the Outer Beltway is "unpopular", besides your own personal opposition and the negative remarks of a relative handful of fellow bloggers? I would be interested in being directed to a link containg some unbiased statistics.

by ceefer66 on Jun 17, 2011 11:17 am • linkreport

What evidence do you have that the Outer Beltway is "unpopular"...

One could make the case that, at the end of a half-century of the most frenetic highway-building the world has ever known, the fact that the Outer Beltway does not exist is evidence of its unpopularity. At least in the absence of evidence to the contrary.

by oboe on Jun 17, 2011 11:35 am • linkreport

"One could make the case that, at the end of a half-century of the most frenetic highway-building the world has ever known, the fact that the Outer Beltway does not exist is evidence of its unpopularity. At least in the absence of evidence to the contrary."

Sorry, oboe, but wisgful thinking is not an intelligent answer.

Can't even rate that one a "nice try".

by ceefer66 on Jun 17, 2011 12:32 pm • linkreport

"One could make the case that, at the end of a half-century of the most frenetic highway-building the world has ever known, the fact that the Outer Beltway does not exist is evidence of its unpopularity. At least in the absence of evidence to the contrary."
------------------------

That makes about as much sense as claiming the Intercounty Connector - 50 years in the making - took so long to build because it too was "unpopular".

What has kept the Outer Beltway from being built is the same thing that held up the ICC - opposition from a well-organized, well-financed, vocal, and stubborn MINORITY.

The majority in Maryland who wanted the ICC built saw to it by electing a governnor (Bob Erlich) who was committed to getting it built.

In fact, Erlich's election, the first for a Republican in 40 years, was a repudiation of his predecesor's pandering to environmentalists by trying to kill the ICC.

Fact is, road opponents in this region have historically enjoyed a degree of influence on the transportation planning process that is far out of proportion with their numbers. For that reason, most of the planned limited-access highways in this region never got built. That "half-century of the most frenetic highway-building the world has ever known" you're ranting about certainly hasn't happened here.

My money is on the Outer Beltway eventually getting built. All it will take is enough of the MAJORITY standing up and demanding that politicians stop pandering to the vocal minority and act in the interests of the greater good.
As was eventually done with the ICC.

And the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge (the NIMBYs in Alexandria said it was "unpopular" and held it up for years).

And the 11th Street Bridge connecting 295 and 395 (The Barney Circle Connector opponents called joining 295 and 395 "unpopular" for over a decade).

by ceefer66 on Jun 17, 2011 2:26 pm • linkreport

ceefer66 wrote:

@DA,
What evidence do you have that the Outer Beltway is "unpopular", besides your own personal opposition and the negative remarks of a relative handful of fellow bloggers? I would be interested in being directed to a link containg some unbiased statistics.
.............................................

I was wondering that myself. Alpert persistently uses "sprawl" like it is a four-letter word. He is right that business in this region in centered in Washington but that in itself is a specious argument for preventing the building of an outer beltway. Not every family in this region is interested in living in condos or townhomes right next to DC and biking to work or using public transportation as a primary means of getting around. Many families cannot afford it. Not every business is interested in staying in the same location.

It is one thing to advocate local planning for an urban lifestyle, it is quite another to do so in a manner that limits the choices of others who do not share those same interests.

by Fitz157 on Jun 20, 2011 11:02 am • linkreport

"It is one thing to advocate local planning for an urban lifestyle, it is quite another to do so in a manner that limits the choices of others who do not share those same interests."

I couldn't have said better myself.

As for business in the region being centered on Washington, that's not so.

Certainly, most of the Federal Government is centered in DC and it is the region's largest largest employer. However, most of the corporate jobs, including those that serve the Federal Government, are located in the suburbs. Every one of the region's largest private employers (except Fannie Mae) is located outside DC. and for good reason - taxes, traffic, space constraints (brought on largely by the DC height limits), among other reasons. Not to mention the fact that most of their workforce - the very people who need an Outer Beltway - are located in the suburban areas the urbanists despise as "sprawl".

Like it or not, the "sprawl" is here to stay. It's not a new phenomenon, and it's not limited to the US. Fact is, most people do not prefer to live in a dense environment and depend on transit to take them wherever they can't walk or ride a bicycle to reach - all claims to the contrary. The sooner we accept that reality -and plan for it - the better off we'll be.

by ceefer66 on Jun 20, 2011 3:34 pm • linkreport

Fact is, most people do not prefer to live in a dense environment and depend on transit to take them wherever they can't walk or ride a bicycle to reach - all claims to the contrary.

I think this is where a lot of folks are confused: The anti-sprawl position isn't a prescriptive one (or proscriptive for that matter) it's a descriptive one. It's not a matter of what you want, it's a matter of what's going to be possible. Say I don't want to take out my trash; I want to just keep bagging it up and leaving it in the corner of my kitchen. If someone tells me that's not sustainable, it doesn't mean they're trying to "take away my freedoms".

With regional population growth, congestion's only going to get worse. With the suburbanization of poverty, the suburbs are only going to get poorer. With rising fuel costs, exurban living will only get more expensive.

The sooner we accept that reality -and plan for it - the better off we'll be.

This is a bit like saying we need to accept the "reality" of pancreatic cancer by accepting it, and planning to live with it. You can make heroic attempts to stave it off, or manage some sort of remission, but acceptance just means throwing in the towel. "Sprawl" may be here to stay, but I guarantee you that in twenty years the demographic profile of folks living in that sprawl is going to be radically different than it is today.

by oboe on Jun 20, 2011 6:47 pm • linkreport

oboe wrote:

I think this is where a lot of folks are confused: The anti-sprawl position isn't a prescriptive one (or proscriptive for that matter) it's a descriptive one. It's not a matter of what you want, it's a matter of what's going to be possible.
........................

Sprawl is a description. Anti-sprawl is not a description, it is position that the urbanists have taken.

oboe wrote:

With regional population growth, congestion's only going to get worse.
...............................

So how is limiting the choices where individuals and families can choose to live going to help alleviate that? Like ceefer66 pointed out, not everyone in the region commutes to DC for work.

by Fitz157 on Jun 21, 2011 8:41 am • linkreport

Sprawl is a description. Anti-sprawl is not a description, it is position that the urbanists have taken.

Sorry, I think you misunderstood me: you and ceefer seem to think the anti-sprawl position is that we should dismantle the suburbs and force people to live in dense urban high-rises. The actual anti-sprawl position is that the exurban model is unsustainable, and will collapse under its own weight in a decade or so because of a number of factors we've already covered.

People will still get to live in sprawl a decade or two from now--it's just that the exurban places that don't currently suck will be suckier, and the ones that currently suck will suck even worse. In twenty years, many folks who would otherwise prefer to live in a 4000 square foot house on a cul-de-sac might find themselves living in a 1200 square foot 2 bedroom condo in the city "for the schools".

So how is limiting the choices where individuals and families can choose to live going to help alleviate that?

I'm curious: what's your definition of "limiting the choices where individuals and families can choose to live"?

The urbanist agenda largely consists mostly of tweaking zoning regulations so that it's no longer illegal to build traditional non-sprawl neighborhoods.

by oboe on Jun 21, 2011 9:45 am • linkreport

oboe wrote:

The actual anti-sprawl position is that the exurban model is unsustainable, and will collapse under its own weight in a decade or so because of a number of factors we've already covered.
......................

I understand what you mean by this but it seems a bit vague. Have any models been developed for northern Virgina? (And not done by urbanist advocacy groups)

oboe wrote:

People will still get to live in sprawl a decade or two from now--it's just that the exurban places that don't currently suck will be suckier, and the ones that currently suck will suck even worse.
........................

"Sucks" according to who? I myself would not prefer to live outside the Beltway, but I work with many individuals who choose that, some even quite far, but I don't recall their choice of housing as "sucking."

oboe wrote:

I'm curious: what's your definition of "limiting the choices where individuals and families can choose to live"?
...........................................

Opposition to an outer Beltway would be a good example.

Oboe wrote:

The urbanist agenda largely consists mostly of tweaking zoning regulations so that it's no longer illegal to build traditional non-sprawl neighborhoods.
.......................................

What's the definition of a "non-sprawl" neighborhood? What type of the zoning regulations are you're referring to?

by Fitz157 on Jun 21, 2011 10:25 am • linkreport

@Fitz157-two examples of zoning laws that induce/create sprawl: strict seperation of all commercial and residential that eliminates previously existing (in older neighborhoods)/prevented (in newer neighborhoods) "corner"/neighborhood stores; acreage minimums for new and/or replacement schools.

by Tina on Jun 21, 2011 11:06 am • linkreport

quite often the developers don't "own" the land out on the fringes they have an "option" on it. The land sale will be based on how many units the developer gets to build. But the they lure in the landowners with dollar figures based on by-right housing unit densities that are completely unrealistic preliminary plans. These will have units on steep slopes, wetlands etc. that will never be approved by "responsible" municipalities:-) The farmers dreams of yachts and vacation homes vanish when the total units for the development are drastically reduced in the negotiations with the municipalities. Then payments are only handed out as each unit gets issued an occupancy permit by the muni. Final payments can sometimes take decades.

This process is why it makes so much sense for farmers to go the conservancy route. They usually get a per acre dollar figure with cash on the barrel head or arranged in a tax saving payout.

Have to remember that very few if any new roads (new ROWs)are built for primarily transportation needs (from Rt.95 to any local connector). They are built to add value to land that speculators control. The ROWs are lobbied for decades in advance by these speculators' agents who have been appointed to regional and state boards, committees
Larry Shaeffer
larryshaeffer@gmail.com

by Larry Shaeffer on Jun 23, 2011 9:56 am • linkreport

Hi David,
have you seen the 5-part series from Strong Towns on sprawl?
The Growth Ponzi Scheme (also published at GRIST)
http://www.strongtowns.org/the-growth-ponzi-scheme/

Its the best I've come across on how we have to rethink this process.
Larry Shaeffer
larryshaeffer@gmail.com

by Larry Shaeffer on Jun 23, 2011 10:28 am • linkreport

There has to be a happy medium between the highly urbanized yups of the inner beltway and the more suburban yups of the outer beltway. To suggest to people who chose to drop their half a million dollars on a 4 bedroom house with a yard in Ashburn that all they have to do is come live in a 2 bedroom townhouse with no yard in Clarendon for the same price is a failure to understand freedom of choice in a capitalist economy. It is not a mark of how poor public transport is that they are "forced" to live at the end of a hour and half commute each morning, it is a mark of how much they value having more living space both inside and outside their home, and what an awful commute they are willing to put up with to have it. Because of freedom of movement, people "vote with their feet" on where they want to live. Why is there a problem with "the east-west divide" as someone put it? Because law enforcement in Virginia is far more strenuous and aggressive in Northern Virginia, when compared with Prince Georges County. Hence, a comparable house will cost more in Virginia then it would in Maryland. Why does a 3 bedroom starter home built in 1947 cost four times as much in Rosslyn as in Leesburg? Because some people value being in the middle of everything and having access to the metro. There are overall projects that can improve the general welfare of greater DC, but to take as an article of faith that all people have to do is adopt the lifestyle that you think is sustainable or beneficial to ensure their happiness is a fantasy. Decades of trying to coerce people into living and commuting in a certain way have merely caused those who do not wish to go along to vote with their feet and go somewhere where they have their priorities more effectively met. Judging by the explosive growth of Reston, Herndon and points even farther from the core of DC, there are still many people who are not keen on being "reeducated" on how to live by central planners.
The solution is to have major infrastructure projects that serve all peoples ACTUAL needs and priorities, rather then aspirational ones. Build a second Rosslyn tunnel to mitigate the madness of the Orange Crush, but also build another span of the 14th street bridge. Buy faster trains to service MARC and VRE lines, but also widen I-270 and the Beltway between Tysons and I-395. Pragmatism and practicality should be the order of the day.

by Doubledeck 66! (Just kidding, but not really) on Sep 26, 2011 1:24 pm • linkreport

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