Do "we have to do something" about traffic but not transit?
Why do many of our leaders in suburban jurisdictions see new roads as necessary and inevitable, but new transit as difficult and unlikely?
I've been meeting with elected officials in the region about transportation and development issues. One representative from Montgomery County recently expressed a general sentiment among area leaders that "we have to do something" to accommodate increased traffic between the American Legion Bridge and I-270. After all, Virginia is building HOT lanes that will bring more cars onto the Beltway, and Maryland is pushing for more lanes on 270 north of Rockville. Logically, this person said, the state and the county will probably have to connect the two with additional HOT lanes through Potomac and Bethesda.
Later in the conversation, when discussing Gaithersburg West, I noted the potential for biotech development at White Oak. That location is already a life sciences hub. It's closer to both DC and Baltimore, reducing the likely commutes for people working there versus Gaithersburg West. It's also in a part of Montgomery County with far fewer jobs than people, unlike the 270 corridor.
What it lacks, like Gaithersburg West, is good transit. There is an inactive proposal to build a Purple Line spur up New Hampshire or Route 29 to the area. Why not revive the idea? When I brought it up, the representative jokingly said something like, "I'd like some of what you're smoking." And in fact, with many transit projects including the Purple Line, Baltimore Red Line, and Corridor Cities Transitway already vying for funds, it would be very difficult to add a Purple Line spur to White Oak.
That's the conventional wisdom among most elected officials. We "have to do something" to add road capacity. But transit projects are so difficult as to be nearly laughable. Yet freeway projects are not cheap. As we saw from ACT's alternative plan for the I-270 corridor, you can build a lot of transit for the price of some freeway lanes. It's just that leaders are too accustomed to viewing road capacity as a necessity and transit as a luxury.
Sure, more people drive today than take transit along those routes. In fact, virtually nobody takes transit between Tysons Corner and Bethesda for the simple reason that there isn't any. But transportation expansion, whether roads or transit, will primarily serve new commuters, not the existing ones. If no new jobs or housing were coming to our region, we wouldn't be worried about HOT lanes, Purple Lines, or anything else. The current roads and rails move the people who move today. The new infrastructure we build will govern the locations and modes of new commuter growth. If we choose transit, we'll get new transit riders.
Besides, why don't we "have to do something" about Metro crowding? The Metro system is very crowded during rush hours, particularly along the Red and Orange Lines in the Favored Quarter. The Beltway is very crowded around there, too, as are I-66 and I-270. Yet for some reason, leaders talk about "having" to add more car capacity, but not about how we absolutely need to put in more tracks on the Metro or build transit across the Potomac. Why?
When our region adds auto capacity in one place, it creates bottlenecks in another place. Growth in western Fairfax is creating bottlenecks on I-66 through Arlington. The HOT lanes will create a bottleneck at the American Legion Bridge. When the automatic reaction of officials is simply to plan another capacity increase down the line, we start a chain reaction that never ends.
The ICC was "necessary" to get people from Prince George's County to jobs along 270. Then, now that there was going to be a freeway to the Gaithersburg West area, it's "critical" to upzone that for even more jobs. Next, since there was going to be so much job growth there, it becomes essential to widen I-270 to the north. Once there are lanes there and in Virginia, we "have to" add more across the Potomac.even more freeways and expressways up to 10 lanes wide crisscrossing their county, so they can fill in every acre with single-family houses. Where will everyone work? Before long, we'll not only "have to" widen I-66 again and again, but build another freeway crossing through Potomac between the ICC and Dulles
Montgomery voters strongly oppose a freeway through Potomac, but they oppose new lanes on the Beltway as well, and leaders are saying we "have to" build it anyway. Maybe this generation of elected officials has no interest in that, but what will happen when the 12- and 14-lane I-270 and Beltway are hopelessly congested?
Leaders are supposed to lead. They are the ones who should be looking to the future and working toward the best vision of the future. A region with three Beltways, with as much development north and west of Dulles Airport as south and east, where Frederick is part of the region's core and middle suburbs are in West Virginia, isn't where we should go. There's plenty of room for economic growth around Metro, inside the Beltway, at Tysons, Route 7 and Springfield in Fairfax, Shady Grove, White Flint, Silver Spring, Wheaton and White Oak in Montgomery, and at every Prince George's Metro station. Leaders in Maryland and Virginia just need to stop saying "we have to" build more freeways and big office parks at the edge of the region, and instead encourage infill development and expand our great transit infrastructure.
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