Greater Greater Washington

Posts about HOT Lanes


BRT is great, but highway buses aren't BRT

Are highway toll lanes a great way to provide rapid bus service all over the region, or a sneaky way to widen roads under the auspices of improving transit?

Photo from Washington State DOT on Flickr.

Planners at the Transportation Planning Board (TPB) are currently preparing a Regional Transportation Priorities Plan. It will be a sort of wish list of transportation projects and strategies the DC region may want to consider funding some time in the future.

One interesting concept they propose is to widen nearly every highway in the region with a new set of variably-priced toll lanes, like the express lanes that recently opened on the Beltway in Virginia.

The idea is that tolls would be set high enough to ensure traffic on the lanes moves quickly, which would simultaneously improve car congestion and provide all the benefits of a dedicated busway. Sounds great, except it never works that way in real life.

Why this won't work as promised

There are two big problems with this approach.

First, transit is most effective when it's located along dense, mixed-use corridors, where riders can walk to their destination on at least one end of the route. Highways never work very well, because the land use surrounding highways is inevitably spread out and car-oriented nearly all the time.

Even Metrorail stations in the most prosperous parts of the region have trouble attracting development if they're in a highway median.

And without surface bus lanes on downtown streets, highway buses will get clogged in downtown traffic just like cars.

That's not to say highways shouldn't have good buses. Of course they should, because there are some trips that can be served that way. But you will never succeed in building a truly great transit system when it's built as an afterthought to highways, because the land use drives ridership.

That brings up the second big problem: Transit lines that are promised as an afterthought to highway expansion are always the first thing to be cut when money runs low.

That's exactly what happened on both the Beltway express lanes in Virginia and on the ICC in Maryland, which both use variably-priced tolls to keep traffic moving.

In Virginia, the Beltway HOT lanes were originally sold as "HOT/BRT lanes." But planners stopped promising BRT before construction even started. Now there are a handful of commuter buses that use the HOT lanes, but they're nothing like a true all-day BRT line.

In Maryland, planners never promised BRT on the ICC, but they did promise good bus service. Lo and behold, just a couple of years after opening the ICC, the state proposed to eliminate 3 of its 5 bus routes.

Today, neither the Beltway nor the ICC have bus service anywhere near as good as the regular bus lines on 16th Street in DC or Columbia Pike in Virginia. Say nothing of BRT. On the other hand, those highways got built.

A better alternate exists, but isn't in the plan

Oddly, the TPB's proposed plan doesn't say anything about BRT on arterial roads, where it's more likely to do the most good.

Arterial roads have the most demand for bus service, and produce the most bus ridership, precisely because they're the main streets with all the mixed-use destinations.

That's why Montgomery County, Arlington, and Alexandria are all working on actual BRT projects on arterial roads.

But the upcoming BRT lines in Montgomery, Arlington, and Alexandria could be so much more effective if they were coordinated into a larger regional network. As the main cross-jurisdictional planning agency for the DC region, TPB should be helping to plan that network, with lines in Fairfax, Prince George's, and DC.

Instead, they're mucked up pushing a highway plan that doesn't really do much good for transit.

Tell TPB to look at arterial BRT instead

The draft Regional Transportation Priorities Plan does say arterials should have "bus priority," such as MetroExtra-like limited stop routes. That's good, but why not push for something better? With many jurisdictions looking at arterial BRT anyway, there's no reason to hold back.

TPB is good at studying alternatives. In fact, they've already completed multiple studies looking at the variably-priced lanes idea. They should give at least as much attention to arterial BRT.

TPB is still accepting public comments on its draft plan, but today is the last day. They need to hear that a few buses won't convince transit advocates to support the biggest expansion of sprawl-inducing highway capacity in the DC region since Eisenhower. They need to hear that the proper place for transit is arterial roads, not highways.


Like a big city, Tysons will be a transit hub

Tysons Corner has more office space than downtown Baltimore, Richmond, and Norfolk put together. It should be the center its own large transit network. The Silver Line and express buses on the Beltway HOT lanes are good first steps, but in the long run Tysons is going to need more routes, connecting it to more places.

In the long run, Tysons needs something more like this:

In recent years, planners in Virginia have begun to seriously consider a Tysons-centric rapid transit network. It doesn't have a name, and isn't officially separate from any of the other transportation planning going on in the region, but it shows up on long range regional plans like SuperNoVa and TransAction.

In addition to the Silver Line, HOT Lanes Buses, and Tysons' internal circulation network, officials are beginning to study light rail connections to Maryland, Falls Church, and Merrifield, and BRT on the Chain Bridge Road corridor.

It will be years before any of these additional routes are implemented, and they could look very different from this map once they finally are. Details don't exist yet, because at this point these are little more than ideas.

But to work as the urban place Fairfax County officials hope Tysons will become, this is the sort of regional infrastructure it's going to need.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


VDOT ignores own data, pushes widening I-66

When VDOT began their "multimodal" study of I-66 inside the Beltway, many assumed that this was just a formality and, regardless of what the models showed, VDOT would recommend widening the road. Turns out, that seems to be exactly what's happening.

Photo by JoeInSouthernCA on Flickr.

When the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) wanted to widen I-66 in a few places, local leaders argued that they hadn't studied the corridor thoroughly enough. Under pressure, VDOT agreed to do a study, and the results are now coming out.

According to VDOT's own data, an option that doesn't require widening I-66 would do more for mobility than widening it. Despite this, VDOT officials told a group of citizen and government stakeholders on Tuesday that they plan to recommend the widening option. Was this just a foregone conclusion from the start?

VDOT showed 4 "packages" of changes at 2 public meetings, along with stats for how each would likely affect travel times, traffic volumes, and more.

Package 1, which would make the existing lanes of I-66 into HOT lanes, free for vehicles with 3 or more people and tolled for 1 and 2, brings almost as much benefit as Package 2, which would add a 3rd lane on top of that. But package 1 costs about $350-650 million less.

Package 1 (convert existing lanes to HOT lanes):

Package 2 (add 3rd lane, convert all to HOT lanes):

Allen Muchnick of the Arlington Coalition for Sensible Transportation was one of the stakeholders in Tuesday's meeting, and got to see the draft final report. It lists the following metrics for packages 1 and 2, plus another option called a "sensitivity test," which tried only applying tolls during the peak period where I-66 is HOV-only today.

Here are the key metrics. The "Pkg 1 + ST" column reflects this new option from the sensitivity test.

MetricPkg 1Pkg 1 + STPkg 2
Daily Person Miles Traveled+40,490 (0.8%)+318,388 (5.4%)+267,509 (4.6%)
Person Throughput Measure+5,632 (1.2%)+27,669 (6.1%)+24,098 (5.3%)
Peak Period Congested VMT+10,726 (2.8%)+11,230 (2.9%)-65,164 (-16.9%)
Transit Ridership+1,423 (1.1%)+2,568 (1.9%)+2,124 (1.6%)
Added Capital Cost$33M$33M$345-695M
Added Operating Cost$23M$23M$25M

This new option, tolling at peak times, appears to move more people by both car and transit than the widening, yet saves hundreds of millions of dollars. Even without this option, it's likely that widening the road at such cost, and with all the disruption it will cause, is not worth gaining only a few percentage points of extra movement.

The metric of "peak period congested VMT" measures the wrong thing. This is the amount of vehicle miles traveled that happen in an uncongested road. But congetion, per se, is not the problem; a short drive in traffic is better than a long drive without it. The goal is to move people, or more accurately, get people where they need to be.

There were plenty of flaws with this study from the start. This assumes, as the "baseline," that Virginia has implemented every change in the regional Constrained Long-Range Plan (CLRP). That includes adding the 3 "spot improvements," which would already widen I-66 in several places; and changing I-66 to HOV-3 and assuming that nobody cheats the HOV restrictions.

The CLRP also includes some projects which will help in the I-66 corridor but have no funding today, like lengthening all Metro trains to 8 cars and adding new bus service in the area. Hopefully these will happen, but there's no guarantee.

A better study would have used today as the baseline, and looked at the CLRP changes like the "spot improvements" as some of the options. After all, if another change helps more, it's far from too late to build that instead. We would also then be able to better see the effects of this phantom bus service, though I'm told the full report does provide more detail on the effects of these proposals.

BeyondDC reminded me yesterday about a flowchart I made back in 2009. I've updated it slightly:

Is the urge to widen I-66 coming from engineers who can't shake the paving habit, or political pressure from above? If a transportation agency is unwilling to actually recommend anything other than widening, regardless of what a study shows, then that study really is the sham as people accused, and I feared, at the time, and VDOT might as well change its name to Virginia Department Of Paving Your Community.


Weekend links: The end

This article was posted as an April Fool's joke.

Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Scandal rocks Draft Wells campaign: The nascent campaign to draft Tommy Wells for mayor in 2014 has been suspended amid new allegations that under Wells' oversight, DC Public Libraries has been blatantly allowing people to use its books for free. The US Attorney is probing similar conduct at the Department of Parks and Recreation. (City Paper, Todd)

Evans eyes Georgetown for Redskins: A new plan from Councilmembers Jack Evans and Michael Brown would demolish Georgetown's campus and move it to Hill East. The current campus would become a practice facility for the Redskins. Some Georgetown neighbors immediately endorsed the plan, because the new facility will create almost no noise and attract very few people to the area. (Post)

Pedestrian safety solved: A new policy from the Montgomery County DOT will make it illegal to cross any arterial streets in the county, eliminating dangerous crossings. People without cars needing to traverse a roadway can get on a bus and ride it to the end of the line and back again. (Gazette, Ben Ross)

Escalator reliability reaches 100%: Metro has achieved a new milestone for escalator maintenance. They have now reached a reliability rate of 100%; all escalators are currently broken at the same time. (Examiner, Matt Johnson)

Hop on I-395 PE: With Virginia's new program to sell naming rights to roads, Sudafed has proposed sponsoring all of Northern Virginia's congestion. (WBJ, Steve Offutt)

LOV-0 coming to a road near you: Google is reportedly working on a new program to design "passengerless cars," which will transport no people at all. In anticipation of this breakthrough, VDOT announced a plan to implement "Low-Occupancy Vehicle" lanes for their exclusive use. (Wired, Neil Flanagan)

DC4D4Thomas: DC for Democracy has endorsed Harry Thomas, Jr. as a write-in candidate for the Ward 5 special election. Members cited Thomas' consistency in talking about revitalizing the ward's main streets without making anything happen, creatively moving around money dedicated to serve youth, and his plan to solve transportation problems by setting up a series of Audi dealerships. (Geoff Hatchard)

Norton targets Wyoming: After several unsuccessful efforts to lobby state legislatures to support DC statehood, Eleanor Holmes Norton announced a new strategy to try to remove statehood from Wyoming, as it is smaller than DC. (DCist, Nick Clark)

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