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Small transport projects can be best and build a better region

To hear some people talk, the only way to "solve" traffic issues in the Washington region is to go big or go home. But smaller local projects could have a much bigger impact on making the region a better place to live, and an easier place to navigate.

Photo by neoporcupine on Flickr.

Individuals like Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton or organizations like the 2030 Group prey on the frustrations of Washington area drivers by proposing gargantuan projects like the Outer Beltway and multiple additional Potomac River crossings.

They promise that these projects from the 1950's can solve, in one fell swoop, traffic problems that have developed because of our reliance on specific forms of development and transportation in the years since World War II.

Leave aside for the moment whether, in this era of limited public funding, the money even exists for these projects. You still run into a simple problem with these "solutions"—a focus on highway capacity expansion hasn't been effective at solving our traffic problems.

Fortunately, we don't think the situation is hopeless. It just requires a different way of thinking about the problem to get at those different results.

While we're not going to go into every possibility in this particular post, we do want to focus on the idea that smaller, localized projects taken as a whole can be better than the larger, flashier projects. Smaller projects can offer more travel options, improved livability, and better regional transportation performance for a fraction of the cost of a megaproject.

Focusing on simple projects like making it easier to walk or bike to school in a given locality, adding housing close to jobs and in commercial shopping corridors, connecting local streets, or incentivizing development at an underutilized Metro station can have a ripple effect on transportation in our region.

This is not to say that there is never a time or place for major infrastructure projects. But we can sometimes can get much better dividends by instituting common sense, smart growth solutions that give people real choices on neighborhood scale and transportation options. And we can often use our existing infrastructure instead of an over-reliance on creating something new.

To help demonstrate that, we're starting an occasional series on localized projects and themes that, when looked at as a whole, could provide real options in transportation and living arrangements. This piece-by-piece approach can improve the performance of our transportation system in the Washington region at the same time it strengthens our communities.

Our first posts will focus on smart growth in the Rockville Pike corridor in Montgomery County, creating Safe Routes to School in Fairfax County, and citizen involvement in Gaithersburg.

In the coming weeks we hope to present similar pieces from different areas throughout the DC area to highlight a range of solutions that together will offer regional benefits. Do you have some ideas of your own for your particular part or sector of the metropolitan region? We'd love to hear your thoughts. Let us hear your suggestion by submitting it as a post and we may include it as part of this series.

Stewart Schwartz is Executive Director and a founder of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, which he built into the leading smart growth organization in the Washington, DC region, addressing the interconnected issues of land use, transportation, urban design, housing, and energy. A retired Navy Captain with 24 years of active and reserve service, he earned a BA and JD from the University of Virginia and an MA from Georgetown University. 


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These damn martinis. I could have sworn that I just read on GGW that it was valuable to talk about $15 billion boondoggles to Woodbridge, but now we are only supposed to talk about little projects?

Here's my question though -- it always seems easier do get a big project through than a little project. A lot of that is based on funding. If you going to ask a 99 million project, might as well as ask for $100 and throw in $1 million on the side. Until you get away from that dynamic, it won't change. I have to think perhaps some of the success of Arlington is related to that -- it is slightly more maneuverable than a VDOT.

by charlie on Sep 26, 2011 12:59 pm • linkreport

I applaud this approach as being both intelligent and in touch with the times. Many urban area leaders from New York City to Chattanooga to Austin...will tell you to start with the small but significant issues and then the rest becomes easy. Communities note the change immediately and view solutions in a bite-size manner which all of us can appreciate.

The one downside to this...unlike planning both large and small in the 1950' the amount of regulatory oppression and over-lapping non-elected agencies that thwart solutions.

I'd like to see this latter point addressed as it's time to stop thinking 'big' about government and bureaucracy too.

Thank you for this effort!

by Pelham1861 on Sep 26, 2011 1:04 pm • linkreport

GGW contributors are permitted to disagree with each other.

by Neil Flanagan on Sep 26, 2011 1:05 pm • linkreport

It's a little out of GGW's usual area of coverage, but the stretch of MD-32 between 198 and 175 desperately needs a third lane.

The problem comes when the steady stream of cars coming from 198 tries to merge onto 32, causing backups ranging from 1-3 miles of near stopped traffic. Then, roughly the same number of cars gets off of 32 at 175 just a mile down the road, and traffic returns to normal. Having a mile long lane for people coming from 198->32 to merge (and for people going from 32->175 to prepare to exit) would completely eliminate this bottleneck.

The road is dead straight and the ROW is wide at this point, so there shouldn't be a heck of a lot of work other than adding some pavement. Of course, this is part of Fort Meade, so the process of coordination probably gets infinitely more difficult when you throw the DoD into the planning equation.

by Ryan S on Sep 26, 2011 1:08 pm • linkreport

Charlie - We definitely agree that large projects have a place in the planning process. However,we wanted to point out that smaller projects can be more effective overall in creating positive change, and are often more feasible. Essentially, when taken as a whole, small projects tend to have a greater ripple effect.

by Laura DeSantis - CSG on Sep 26, 2011 1:25 pm • linkreport

I don't agree. There have been a multitude of smaller projects, at least in NOVA. IMHO this is the way to go for the foreseeable future.

by movement on Sep 26, 2011 1:30 pm • linkreport

@LauraDeSantis; so, which is? Talking about big transit projects to make sure they are on the table, or little projects that are more cost-effective?

I agree that GGW contributors don't need to agree, but these seems to me a big gap. Dave's series was more about how to talk about projects, while perhaps this is more about developing a list. Or not.

If I had to choose one, I'd personally say small projects, but as I said earlier, there seems to be a lot of institutional funding blocks to get small projects through.

Perhaps another way to think about is to focus "movement professionals" to look at things in a more micro way. Take NextBus, for instance. Small project, but huge impacts in a way that a larger view wouldn't detect. I'd say bikesharing is the same way -- getting people to understand that it safe to ride wihtout wearing funny clothing or a helmet is a win for everyone.

by charlie on Sep 26, 2011 1:50 pm • linkreport

Small projects like the spot improvements being made to I-66 West in Arlington?

You supported that, right Stephen?

by Novanglus on Sep 26, 2011 1:56 pm • linkreport

@charlie - There are times for larger projects and times for smaller projects. We wanted to point out that oftentimes smaller projects can yield large dividends.

by Laura DeSantis - CSG on Sep 26, 2011 2:00 pm • linkreport

Another little win would be where Rt 1 south goes from 3 to 2 lanes right by E. Reed Ave across from the potomac yard shopping center. It should at the very least be right turn only lane onto Reed. That spot during rush hour events is a cluster that can back up through Crystal City. Honestly they should consider allowing only two through lanes at the intersection with S. Glebe Rd in Arlington. It would make things go much smoother.

by NikolasM on Sep 26, 2011 2:32 pm • linkreport

We need ... wait for it ...


Yes, we need additional Potomac crossings....have you tried 301 or 95 South...ever?

And yes, local projects make local places better.

This is not a one or the other discussion. To make it so, shortchanges your local places.

by Redline SOS on Sep 26, 2011 2:33 pm • linkreport

Sorry, "Stewart", not "Stephen", but I should have addressed it to CSG in general.

I think there are a few places where we can solve bottlenecks cheaply by just eliminating lanes. Especially on the two-lane on-ramps that create unnecessary merges: I-66 East from Sycamore and from VA-7; US-50 West from the TR Bridge; GWP North from Rosslyn.

by Novanglus on Sep 26, 2011 2:49 pm • linkreport

+1. Great post. But, I think you should take it one step further. Rather than pushing "smallness" I think you should push "innovation". That said, innovative ideas almost always start out small but there's an important distinction.

Smallness can be taken as doing more of the same but only at a smaller scale. The spot improvements on 66 is a great example of that. What we really need to talk about is trying different approaches to solving our problems like telecommuting, bikesharing, improving walkability, etc.

This approach fits hand-in-glove with a broader theme that any fervent tea party-er will support (which I'm sure is exactly where you're coming from ....ha, ha!) We're talking about the need to control government overspending which is linked to the knee-jerk reaction of throwing massive sums of government money at any and all of our problems. Top-down control (as opposed to local control) and massive government spending crowd out innovation and experimentation. We're forced into addressing problems with the same toolbox instead of letting the market guide us to new ideas.

by Falls Church on Sep 26, 2011 3:09 pm • linkreport

"You still run into a simple problem with these "solutions"—a focus on highway capacity expansion hasn't been effective at solving our traffic problems. "

That statement seems ignorant of the Washington, D.C. area's 'de-mappings' of most of its inner hub and its upper spokes, and thus the ripple effect outwards.

by Douglas Willinger on Sep 26, 2011 3:11 pm • linkreport

@fallschurch; well said, sir.

by charlie on Sep 26, 2011 3:25 pm • linkreport

Just my two cents - our inner and outer suburbs are full of neighborhoods that were designed - particularly at the Montgomery County line - to see little or no traffic in a day. They are divorced from the street grid, and are granted restricted access, or they have winding streets that randomly serve no purpose other than to act as glorified driveways to houses. They may be pretty, but in some cases - it isn't the best use of our resources.

In many cases we deliberately limit traffic out of these residential areas and force volume onto only a few limited arteries. I think there could be some opportunities to improve vehicular transportion if we could use existing roadways that have seemingly been reserved for a precious few - rather than building more expressways.

I remember, for example, when I lived in Loudon county only a few hundred feet from Fairfax County a la Great Falls (before I was able to settle in the District where I could basically ditch my car). There was a road that clearly was designed to cross through a neighborhood and give access to Old Georgetown Road, but the desire to keep certain neighborhoods separate from each other led to a permanent concrete roadblock - meaning I had to travel five miles out of my way to get to the same point on the other side. There are countless neighborhoods that see little to no traffic during the day - yet we pay to maintain these roads that only serve a few and, as a result, act as quasi-private roads. Why can't we use what we have smarter?

by EH on Sep 26, 2011 3:46 pm • linkreport

I had the misfortune to be on the beltway three times in the past month- with two of them being on a Saturday evening. Each were horrible experiences. I'm just amazed that people choose to travel on this road daily. People will continue to site in huge traffic jams despite other options. I just don't get it though.

by Tom A. on Sep 26, 2011 3:47 pm • linkreport

Rather than pushing "smallness" I think you should push "innovation".

Exactly right! There are great theoretical reasons HOT lanes, for example, might work. We should experiment with them. If they don't, tear them down and start over with a new idea.

But unfortunately, governments tend to be scared of innovation. By its very nature, it's risky and what politician wants Solyndras popping up every year?

WRT to smaller projects versus larger projects: why aren't we conducting BCA? The net benefits of small projects may--or may not--outweigh the benefits of larger projects. It depends on which projects we are comparing.

This is yet another baseline issue.

by WRD on Sep 26, 2011 3:52 pm • linkreport

One of the things that I see too often overlooked are people urging the construction of expensive rail projects to link places that are currently not even well linked by bus, whether local or regional.

While rail transportation construction projects are a great thing to build community development, they remain transportation initiatives, and as such, should be built on a basis of existing transportation.

Take the proposed purple line for example. At present, the only WMATA bus line that begins to replicate this route (with regards to both routing and stops) is the J4, a route that operates only in peak, and at one point, was threatened with elimination. Were a more robust bus service available, we might be able to more properly plead the case for resources to build the line when budgets finally get hardier.

There are numerous places regionally where a more connective bus service could stretch to, in order to lay the groundwork for ridership that mimics the movement of the region, while gradually building the case for improved alternatives to people's mobility. The near-dearth of options in middays to link, for example, the Metro terminals with other populous localities like Laurel and Columbia is but one such example.

by Adam on Sep 26, 2011 3:54 pm • linkreport

Laura: please pass to Stewart that he should have included a "starter list" of smaller projects for discussion, instead of leaving that part of his point hanging...

by Froggie on Sep 26, 2011 3:58 pm • linkreport

1. its interesting, and troubling, that the Tea Party antikeynsian know nothingism also infects transit advocates. Folks, we NEED to spend big now. Or we can stagnate for years. Spend it on big things or small things, but create JOBS when resources are idle.

2. BCA - transit new starts do have BCA done. Highway spending, mostly by formula does not. The first stimulus bill (Tiger Grants in the transp sector) DID have BCA, though a fairly soft BCA. There are interests that prefer either formulas, or congressional earmarking, to decisions by "bureaucrats" - IE the people who would have to actually do and interpret the BCA's

3. Small improvements - sure. Of course. Transportation management, to get more out of infrastructure has been a big thing for years. of coure if you think its bad BECAUSE it creates more capacity for vehicles, well ....

by AWalkerInTheCity on Sep 26, 2011 4:07 pm • linkreport

My understanding is that there is so much regulation that a larger proportion of a small project goes on legal fees, hearings etc, than a single large project, which you can shepherd through with "contributions" to local officials and community donations. Its certainly true for many areas of commerce.

by SJE on Sep 26, 2011 4:26 pm • linkreport

Safe routes to school in Fairfax County? At our school we aren't allowed to walk or bike to school at all!

by Kevin G on Sep 26, 2011 4:32 pm • linkreport


You're right that large projects enjoy economies of scale just like large businesses. But the advantages of scale are outweighed by the flexibility and responsiveness of small enterprises. It's one of the reasons that small, nimble organizations are often much more successful than giant behemoths. Likewise, small projects are likely to be more innovative and responsive to needs which can overcome their lack of scale.

by Falls Church on Sep 26, 2011 5:42 pm • linkreport

Leapover solutions are needed, like telecommuting, telework,virtual transportation.

by Marc Brenman on Sep 29, 2011 2:54 pm • linkreport

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