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Fix it first, then upgrade, says new regional transportation plan

The National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board approved the draft Regional Transportation Priorities Plan two weeks ago. It advocates a "fix it first" approach that directs resources towards keeping the transportation assets we have in good shape, rather than building massive new facilities that may be costly to maintain.

Image from MWCOG.

The plan is a significant victory for smart growth advocates because it doesn't call for building any new highways. Maintaining Metro is the highest-scoring strategy overall. The plan calls for new transit facilities including both streetcar and bus rapid transit (BRT) lines, potentially using new express toll lanes on existing highways.

It also recommends capacity improvements like expanding Metro capacity in downtown DC, and focusing growth around existing transportation hubs and employment centers, offering more alternatives to driving. However, it relies on elected officials in local jurisdictions to make it happen.

The plan's supposed to inform future updates to the region's Constrained Long-Range Transportation Plan (CLRP), a more specific list of recommended capital investments, including this year's update. The CLRP's existing baseline includes the Silver and Purple lines, the planned DC streetcar network, and Arlington's Columbia Pike and Crystal City streetcars.

But first, local governments need to invest in the transportation infrastructure we already have. "The success of all other strategies to improve transportation in our region relies on an existing system that functions properly and is safe," the plan states. That includes Metro trains that run reliably and aren't overcrowded, bus stops that are easy to get to, roads and sidewalks that are smooth, structurally sound bridges, and efficient traffic signals.

Another key aspect of the plan is its focus on the region's activity centers, places like downtown DC or Bethesda that are walkable, bikeable, and well-served by transit. Simply directing more growth to these places can reduce car trips across the region. More people would have the opportunity to live or work there, while those who still chose to live elsewhere would have more options for getting to activity centers.

As MWCOG Principal Transportation Planner John Swanson put it, "We don't just focus on supply-side additions to the system, but also on managing demand."

Creating more activity centers is one of five central long-term strategies of the plan. The others are adding more capacity on the existing transit system, enhancing circulation within activity centers, encouraging BRT and other cost-effective transit services, and more express toll lanes.

At a press event January 15, Swanson emphasized that the Regional Transportation Priorities Plan is part of on ongoing planning process. It "shows why land use matters and why a lot of little decisions like [building better] bus stops matter," Swanson added. "If they aren't accessible and attractive, other work is for naught."

The TPB recommends focusing on "modes that can move more people at lower cost." The plan generally avoids citing specific projects or locations of concern. Rather, it's intended as a guide for state, county, and municipal officials as they determine which transportation projects deserve a share of their limited budgets.

Whether the vision comes true or not will depend on the elected leaders of the member jurisdictions. It will also require restoring citizens' trust in their government, meaning government must demonstrate that it is taking citizen input seriously and is getting the most bang for taxpayers' buck.

Among its other specific suggestions:

  • Local governments should help Metro reach its state of good repair goals outlined in Metro Forward.
  • Give Metro the resources needed to add capacity, including by adding more eight-car trains and increasing pedestrian flow capacity at constrained stations like Union Station.
  • Enhance and expand commuter rail service, primarily by addressing its two biggest constraints: limited capacity at Union Station and over the decrepit Long Bridge, the region's only crossing of the Potomac for commuter, intercity passenger, and freight trains.
  • Make major investments in relatively inexpensive pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure. It cites the District's success with new bike lanes and expanding Capital Bikeshare, and says adequate sidewalks and crossing signals are still lacking in much of the region.
  • Alleviate bottlenecks in the highway network by building new on- and off-ramps, extra turn lanes, and adding lanes in limited cases.
  • Grow the network of electric car charging stations to incentivize their use.
  • Make the road network safer and more efficient by such often-overlooked strategies as providing more real-time information to drivers, and by updating existing traffic laws, particularly to offer more protection to pedestrians and bicyclists.
The plan reflects and builds upon the work of the late Ron Kirby, the former MWCOG transportation planning director whose shocking murder in his home two months ago remains unsolved. The document is dedicated in his memory. Kirby chose not to pick sides in the more roads vs. more transit tug-of-war, but he was willing to say we should fix things first.

The TPB's next step is to disseminate the plan to both elected and administrative officials in all member jurisdictions and explain how it works. The plan highlights broad agreement at the regional level, and gives jurisdictions a framework for decision-making.

If it agrees, for example, that maintaining the existing system is the top priority, then its practices should reflect that. Thanks to language in a resolution the TPB adopted on January 15, the RTPP will guide DC, Maryland, and Virginia when they propose projects for inclusion in the CLRP.

"This work fits into a broader picture of what people are asking for," said Todd Turner, TPB member and Bowie city councilmember. "[Once people] see the impact of funding decisions on them, they become more supportive."

Read together with MWCOG's Region Forward plan, its Climate Change Report, and its Activity Centers map, the RTPP should guide the region to a better-managed, more transit-oriented, and more sustainable transportation future.

Malcolm Kenton lives in the DCís NoMa neighborhood. Hailing from Greensboro, NC and a graduate of Guilford College, he is a passionate advocate for world-class passenger rail and other forms of sustainable transportation and for incorporating nature and low-impact design into the urban fabric. The views he expresses on GGWash are his own. 


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COG plans are all too often given lip service and ignored. If this is to have any reality, the $4 billion that the current CLRP allocates to widening I-270 should be reallocated to new rail lines.

by Ben Ross on Jan 29, 2014 1:52 pm • linkreport

It seems "new streetcars" don't count as new infrastructure.

The two new tolling systems we have - HOV-95 and the ICC have been doing terrible. Not sure we need more of a failure.

And the DTR is just an ATM.

by charlie on Jan 29, 2014 2:29 pm • linkreport

They are widening 270?

by Richard on Jan 29, 2014 2:30 pm • linkreport

Seems like a solid list. Electric car charging is a topic I haven't really seen here. I guess it makes sense in the city where most trips are going to be under 50 miles and you can usually just charge at home. What is the local market like and how does it work to charge on the go? I've seen Tesla downtown. I assume there are quick charging locations being proposed which I suppose are like gas stations ie you go in and charge in 5-10 minutes and pay them? Is there going to be enough demand to make it worthwhile outside of the inner core area? Maybe they can pair up with a car2go type of model.

by BTA on Jan 29, 2014 2:32 pm • linkreport

@Richard - see here and here.

by Ben Ross on Jan 29, 2014 2:52 pm • linkreport

"The I-270 corridor in Montgomery and Frederick counties is plagued by some of the worst traffic jams in Maryland" -

Baltimore Sun article cited by Mr. Ross.

Anyone who thinks just building bike lanes and adding more Metro and Marc service is a "solution" obviously doesn't deal with the traffic.

by ceefer66 on Jan 29, 2014 3:15 pm • linkreport

@ceefer66: There is no "solution" to the congestion in the I-270 corridor. But there are several next steps. One would be to add freeway lanes. This will not reduce congestion in the long run, but will be very expensive, increase pollution and sprawling development, and do little to affect the pattern of development that created all that congestion.

Another option is to use some combination of Metro extension, MARC expansion, new light rail lines, and pedestrian and bike infrastructure improvements. Transit expansion would take some (but by no means a huge portion of the) drivers off of the roads and reduce congestion a bit in the short run, but in the long run congestion levels probably wouldn't be affected. However, this option would have the advantage that it would provide actual options for residents other than sitting in that congestion all of the time. It would also give an opportunity for new development to take a form that wouldn't generate quite as much future congestion. And finally, it could be quite a bit cheaper than road expansion.

by Gray on Jan 29, 2014 3:45 pm • linkreport

speaking of congestion on I-270 and marc expansion, there's something i've been wondering that i hope someone here can answer. i was in high school growing up in frederick when marc service came to town and i didn't care about anything important, so i didn't notice how the planning process for it went. why was it made to go down to point of rocks and join the existing brunswick line first? was it purely cost, or was the right of way for a more direct line unattainable? was a direct route even ever seriously considered? years later, i would hassle my dad about taking the train whenever he complained about his commute to bethesda, and he would answer that the train goes well out of the way and would not actually save him any time, even in spite of the traffic. i'm sure he was not alone in this feeling. plus, imagine the positive effects it could have had on the development of clarksburg and urbana. is it too late? could such a line still one day happen?

by burgersub on Jan 29, 2014 6:35 pm • linkreport

Can we look at automating the Metro system to reduce train headways and reduce labor costs? I am always surprised at the wait times outside of rush-hour, nights, and weekends. It semi-worthless during these periods. Frequent 5-10 min service are really possible. The automated lines in Vancouver, Paris, etc are amazing. You just walk and go. No thought of needing a car.

by NoneLA on Jan 29, 2014 9:13 pm • linkreport

@NoneLA: WMATA would have to figure out how to make ATC work, first. That seems to be a tall order.

by Mike on Jan 30, 2014 7:30 am • linkreport

"Fix it first".. many times such good advice.

by asffa on Jan 30, 2014 9:45 am • linkreport

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