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Montgomery's most congested intersections aren't in its downtowns

Where do you think the most congested intersections are in Montgomery County? Maybe right by the Bethesda Metro? In downtown Silver Spring? University, Georgia, and Veirs Mill in Wheaton? Actually, no. A review of Montgomery County's 50 most congested intersections found only one inside one of the county's urban centers.


There are busy intersections in the more car-oriented neighborhoods around downtown Silver Spring, but not in the core. Map by the author.

County planners ranked the 50 busiest junctions for the Mobility Assessment Report, a regular review of Montgomery's transportation needs. Notably, the report found that the amount of driving in the county has stayed the same since 2002 even while 100,000 new people came in.

The busiest intersection is Rockville Pike at West Cedar Lane in Bethesda, next to NIH and Walter Reed, which had a critical lane volume of 1,957 cars during morning rush hour. In other words, that means that nearly 2,000 cars pass through a single lane of that intersection each morning. In second place is Rockville Pike and Nicholson Lane in White Flint, which is slowly evolving into a new downtown.

Other than that, the top 50 didn't contain a single intersection in the downtowns of Bethesda, Silver Spring, and Wheaton, in Friendship Heights, or Rockville Town Center. For decades, Montgomery County has had a policy of directing growth to walkable, urban neighborhoods near transit stations with an aim of reducing car traffic.

RankIntersectionCommunityAM CLVPM CLV
1Rockville Pike at West Cedar Ln.Bethesda1,9571,612
2Rockville Pike at Nicholson Ln.White Flint1,2341,929
3Old Georgetown Rd. at Democracy Blvd.North Bethesda1,4231,923
4Darnestown Rd. at Riffle Ford Rd.North Potomac1,0611,898
5Shady Grove Rd. at Choke Cherry Ln.Rockville1,3631,853
6Connecticut Ave. at East-West Hwy.Chevy Chase1,6841,848
7Georgia Ave. at 16th St.Silver Spring1,1221,816
8Great Seneca Highway at Muddy Branch Rd.Gaithersburg1,4641,800
9Frederick Rd. at Montgomery Village Ave.Gaithersburg1,5361,795
10Rockville Pike at 1st St./Wootton Pkwy.Rockville1,7681,610
11East Gude Dr. at Crabbs Branch Rd.Derwood1,7421,211
12Veirs Mill Rd. at Twinbrook Pkwy.Rockville1,4261,721
131st St. at Baltimore Rd.Rockville1,4221,718
14Connecticut Ave. at Plyers Mill Rd.Kensington1,3491,710
15Shady Grove Rd. at Epsilon Dr./Tupelo Dr.Derwood1,7041,403
16University Blvd. at Piney Branch Rd.Silver Spring1,5791,703
17East Gude Dr. at Southlawn Ln.Rockville1,6921,450
18Randolph Rd. at Veirs Mill Rd.Wheaton1,6831,679
19Piney Branch Rd. at Philadelphia Ave.Takoma Park1,2281,680
20Columbia Pike at Fairland Rd.Fairland1,4161,678
21Connecticut Ave. at Jones Bridge Rd.Chevy Chase1,4901,672
22Montrose Rd. at Tower Oaks Blvd.Rockville1,6631,232
23Bradley Blvd. at Wilson Ln.Bethesda1,6601,603
24Falls Rd. at Maryland Ave./Potomac Valley Rd.Rockville1,3841,658
25Georgia Ave. at Norbeck Rd.Aspen Hill1,6561,592
26Frederick Rd. at Shady Grove Rd.Shady Grove1,6471,486
27Colesville Rd. at Dale Dr.Silver Spring1,6041,645
28Shady Grove Rd. at Midcounty Hwy.Derwood1,6441,323
29Clopper Rd. at Waring Station Rd.Germantown1,6361,589
30Montgomery Village Ave. at Stedwick Ln.Montgomery Village1,6331,170
31Connecticut Ave. at Bradley Ln.Chevy Chase1,4151,628
32Georgia Ave. at Forest Glen Rd.Silver Spring1,3181,626
33Colesville Rd. at Sligo Creek Pkwy.Silver Spring1,5081,624
34Georgia Ave. at Columbia Blvd./Seminary Ln.Silver Spring1,5201,624
35Veirs Mill Rd. at 1st St.Rockville1,6101,475
36Aspen Hill Rd. at Arctic Ave.Aspen Hill1,6091,467
37Norbeck Rd. at Muncaster Mill Rd.Aspen Hill1,6091,238
38Columbia Pike at Greencastle Rd.Fairland1,6071,575
39Old Georgetown Rd. at Tuckerman Ln.North Bethesda1,6041,261
40Great Seneca Highway at Quince Orchard Rd.Gaithersburg1,6021,547
41Randolph Rd. at Parklawn Dr.North Bethesda1,6011,165
42Democracy Blvd. at Falls Rd./South Glen Rd.Potomac1,5941,167
43River Rd. at Holton-Arms SchoolBethesda1,5911,358
44Norbeck Rd. at Bauer Dr.Aspen Hill1,5861,329
45Randolph Rd. at New Hampshire Ave.Colesville1,4401,580
46Layhill Rd. at Ednor Rd./Norwood Rd.Olney1,5791,425
47River Rd. at I-495Bethesda1,579957
48River Rd. at Willard Ln./Greenway Dr.Bethesda1,5791,530
49East-West Hwy. at Jones Mill Rd./Beach Dr.Chevy Chase1,0871,574
50Colesville Rd. at Franklin Ave.Silver Spring1,4131,571
Data from the Montgomery County Mobility Assessment Report. CLV = Critical Lane Volume. Click on a column header to sort.

As a result, while these areas do have higher-than-average rates of foot and bike traffic and high rates of transit use, they're not as congested as more suburban parts of the county. Just 16 of the top 50 intersections were inside the Beltway.

Not surprisingly, some of the busiest junctions are along major commuter routes like Rockville Pike, Connecticut Avenue, and Georgia Avenue. But many are on small, two-lane roads in suburban or rural communities like #4, Darnestown Road and Riffle Ford Road in North Potomac, or #46, Layhill Road, Ednor Road, and Norwood Road near Sandy Spring. These places are spread-out and far from transit, jobs, and other amenities, meaning residents have to drive a lot.


Layhill Road and Norwood Road. Image from Google Street View.

This report shows that if you build places on the assumption that people will drive everywhere, you'll get a lot of traffic, while if you give people options, you'll get less. Not everyone may want to live downtown, but those who choose to do so are keeping the roads clear for everyone else.

Roads


Turn on a bulb-out to protect White Flint pedestrians

If Montgomery County is serious about creating walkable places, it must fix dangerous intersections like Hoya Street and Montrose Road in White Flint. Drivers turning right from southbound Hoya to Montrose can't see pedestrians beginning to cross. A bulb-out would make pedestrians visible and the intersection safer.

Last fall, my mother tried to cross here, and told me that she would have been run over here if she had crossed when the walk signal turned green. So I went to see for myself. Recent pedestrian safety improvements had not made the intersection safe. Drivers turning right from Hoya onto Montrose can't see pedestrians on the north side of Montrose Road because a wall at the Monterey Apartments complex blocks drivers' view.

That wall was there before the pedestrian improvements. Why hadn't the changes included a solution for this hazard?


Image from Google Maps.

The Hoya/Montrose intersection was part of the $117 million Montrose Parkway West project. Before 2010, Montrose Road intersected Old Georgetown Road here, before crossing Rockville Pike and becoming Randolph Road on the other side. But in 2010, Montgomery County finished building the adjacent Montrose Parkway at a cost of $70 million.

The Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) also finished their own $47.2 million project, which removed the intersection between Montrose Road and Rockville Pike. The end result is that Montrose Road now ends at what used to be part of Old Georgetown Road, now renamed Hoya Street, while Old Georgetown meets Rockville Pike farther south.

Pedestrian safety improvements followed between 2010 and 2012: new curb ramps, a pedestrian refuge in the median of Hoya Street, an improved pedestrian island between the main part of Montrose Road and the slip lane onto southbound Hoya Street, and a marked crosswalk across the slip lane. And yet, nobody in MCDOT or SHA fixed the hazard the wall causes. Why not?


Photo by Peter Blanchard on Flickr.

When asked via email how to make this intersection safe for pedestrians, Bruce Mangum, head of MCDOT's signals engineering team, said that they will add two signs reading "Turning Traffic Yield To Pedestrians." One will put one on the traffic signal and the other at street level just behind the curb.

Mangum added that "[n]o amount of engineering (signs, signals, pavement markings) can assure safe intersection operations unless motorists and pedestrians alike know and recognize their respective responsibilities." But a few more signs won't make this intersection safe. Research shows that these signs don't significantly increase the likelihood of drivers yielding to pedestrians during right turns. So extra signage likely won't help. And that's at intersections where the drivers can see the pedestrians. Even the most responsible drivers and pedestrians can't see through a wall.

Fortunately, there actually is an engineering solution that can make the intersection safe: a bulb-out (also called a curb extension), where the sidewalk extends farther toward the middle of the road.

With a bulb-out into Montrose Road, a driver making a right turn would be able to see pedestrians waiting to cross. Also, pedestrians would only cross one lane of traffic, instead of two.

It's true that a bulb-out would reduce westbound Montrose Road from two lanes to one at the intersection. But since Montrose Road no longer connects with Rockville Pike, it doesn't need two lanes there anyway. Plus, since this intersection is part of Montgomery County's transformational 2010 White Flint Sector Plan, pedestrian safety and walkability should be the priority.

Signs alone won't make this intersection safe for pedestrians. Sooner or later, a right-turning driver will hit a pedestrian here. Installing a bulb-out would prevent this from happening. MCDOT, please do it.

Roads


Engineers find a new approach to solve traffic congestion and pedestrian delays

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

Drivers and pedestrians alike often have to face unacceptable levels of delay when they drive or walk around roads in the state of Maryland and Montgomery County. Engineers recently announced new approaches that they believe will make these problems disappear.


Image from photo by Google Earth.

The Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) is developing a new Pedestrian Level of Service standard to ensure that pedestrian delays are not unacceptably long, while the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) will make traffic changes that ensure smoother flow of traffic.

On state highways, pedestrians sometimes have to cross three legs of an intersection, as SHA often does not stripe a crosswalk on one leg. Under federal guidelines, walk signals must last long enough for those on foot to traverse the crosswalk. But the crosswalks need not go straight to a pedestrian's destination, so the state and localities often remove crosswalks so avoid having a long walk signal.

The new Pedestrian Level of Service (PLOS) will address this. It will work similarly to the motorist Level of Service, which grades intersections based on how long people have to wait to cross. Vehicular LOS defines an intersection as "failing" if, on average, a driver has to wait 90 seconds or more to get through the intersection.

Since a pedestrian trying to go straight across the leg where the crosswalk doesn't exist has to cross the other 3 legs of the intersection (waiting for the signal each time), they often encounter more than 90 seconds of delay, so SHA will instead define a failing intersection as one where a pedestiran has to wait 3600 seconds or more to cross.

A statewide analysis of intersections under these new standards to determine which intersections need to be upgraded didn't find any problem spots. Deputy Administrator Ida Driven is pleased. "Clearly, this study shows that Maryland is doing well with pedestrian safety. Over the past 15 years, SHA has spent tens of dollars to make sure that active transportation users can get around safely."

A representative of AAA, Hugh Jestkarr, lauded the change. "Clearly the study shows that pedestrians benefit from roadway improvement projects. It shows that drivers can have fast roads and pedestrians can still get what the government defines as adequate."

The State Highway Administration hopes the new standards and the study will help determine where to spend money. As has been done in many areas, if the PLOS does show a poor grade, state officials will simply remove the crosswalk to ensure that the intersection continues to meet the standards.

Meanwhile, MCDOT has been conducting a detailed analysis of places where the vehicular Level of Service is too low. The test measures how much time it takes cars to get through each intersection, but the county has faced increasing difficulties in meeting this test.

County rules, in fact, block construction where roads have a "Level of Service" that is too low. This test measures how much time it takes cars to get through each intersection.

A particular problem is left turns, which slow down the performance of each intersection. Therefore, beginning next year, left turns will be banned throughout the county.

"When turning cars aren't in the way," explained chief traffic engineer Ample Wandering, "drivers get through intersections faster." Current LOS defines an intersection with an excessively backed-up left turn lane as "failing," but the same intersection passes when left turns are forbidden.

LOS rules prescribe how fast cars must go through intersections, noted deputy transportation director Edsel Gasoline, but they say nothing about how quickly drivers get where they are actually going. "Our drivers will finally be free from the curse of failing intersections," boasted Gasoline.

If any intersections still have Level of Service F without left turns, the county will ban right turns there too.

AAA's Jestkarr cheered the plan. "Drivers," she said, "will at last have the fast-moving roads we crave."

Roads


Support grows for BRT in eastern Montgomery, but councilmembers are undecided

Montgomery County is currently deciding what projects to prioritize for its share of state transportation funds. But elected officials are divided over whether to support building new interchanges along Route 29 in East County, or a Bus Rapid Transit line instead.


Route 29 interchange with the ICC. Image from Google Maps.

Tomorrow, the County Council will discuss its transportation priority letter, which requests funding for specific projects from the state. The council's Transportation and Environment committee has recommended taking a progressive shift to prioritize more bicycle, pedestrian, and transit projects.

Led by chair Roger Berliner and at-large councilmember Hans Riemer, the committee prioritized funding to extend the Corridor Cities Transitway to Clarksburg, WMATA's Priority Corridors bus network, and funding to implement bicycle-pedestrian priority areas throughout the county. They also voted to remove three out of four proposed new interchanges on Route 29 in White Oak and Burtonsville.

Several interchanges have been built on the corridor between Silver Spring and Burtonsville in recent years, creating a partially closed-access highway between Route 198 and New Hampshire Avenue that narrows down to a typical, six-lane arterial south of New Hampshire Avenue, where Route 29 approaches downtown Silver Spring.

There have been plans on the books for years to add four additional interchanges north of White Oak, at Fairland and Musgrove roads, Tech Road, Stewart Lane, and Greencastle Road, which has the support of County Executive Ike Leggett. The total price tag? $344 million.

The problem is, the real bottleneck on Route 29 is south of all these intersections in the Four Corners neighborhood, where drivers queue to get on the Beltway. State and county planners know they will never widen Route 29 through Four Corners, meaning new interchanges will only speed more commuters to the bottleneck faster. The interchanges will also make pedestrian connections across the highway more difficult, while increasing the flow and speed of traffic in areas like Four Corners, reducing pedestrian safety.


A family tries to cross Route 29 at Stewart Lane, where an interchange is proposed. Photo by dan reed! on Flickr.

That's why the council committee and the Planning Board both recommended removing additional interchanges from this year's list. Route 29 is one of the 10 corridors in the county's newly-approved BRT network, and Planning Department staff who ran models on the corridor suggested implementing BRT first, and then reviewing whether the interchanges are still needed. They estimate that an 11-mile BRT line between Silver Spring and Burtonsville would cost $351 million, similar to the three interchanges.

While Bus Rapid Transit is not yet ready for construction on Route 29, requesting funds for the three interchanges now would absorb a significant amount of state funds for years to come, making it more difficult to fund needed, high-quality transit in the corridor in the future.

A chart comparing the County Executive's proposals and committee recommendations is on the last page of the council packet. At-large councilmember Nancy Floreen wants to see all four interchanges on 29, while the County Executive wants two: Fairland/Musgrove and Tech. It's unclear where the rest of the Council stands on the issue, especially newly-appointed interim Councilmember Cherri Branson whose district (District 5) includes Route 29.

If you want to see Montgomery County prioritize Bus Rapid Transit and other sustainable transportation projects above decades-old, grade-separated interchanges, click here to send county leaders an email.

Roads


VA legislative update: Bike safety bills advance, while some still try to limit Northern Virginia

As Virginia's legislative session continues, House Republicans are still trying to take local planning authority from Northern Virginia cities and counties. Two bicycle safety bills have moved forward. And Hampton Roads may get a regional transportation authority of its own.


Photo by William F. Yurasko on Flickr.

Bike bills seek to prevent "dooring"

Two bicycle safety bills have passed the Senate and are heading to the House of Delegates, including a bill that would require three feet of clearance when passing a cyclist. Another bill, Senate Bill 225, codifies that a car driver or passenger must ensure that the road is clear before opening their car door into traffic. And the House of Delegates passed HB 82, which specified that non-motorized transportation was included in the law that prohibits drivers following too closely.

However, two road safety bills that would have clarified a driver's duties to pedestrians in crosswalks were defeated in the House.

Delegates rewrite bill stripping Northern Virginia's ability to plan for itself

In our last update, we talked about HB 2, which would reduce Northern Virginia's ability to plan its own transportation projects. It's been significantly rewritten to put transit projects on more equal footing with roads and highways.

It will allow the state to evaluate projects on economic development, safety, accessibility, and environmental quality in addition to congestion relief, which would have been the only factor under the previous bill.

Meanwhile, HB 426, from Chantilly Republican Jim LeMunyon, has been tabled. It called for a "study" of transportation options on I-66 that only included more lanes for cars. It's unlikely that it will come up again this year.

But Delegate LeMunyon did get a House Bill 793 out of committee. That bill would have VDOT recommend specific transportation projects to the groups that plan these projects in Northern Virginia. Bills like this want to ensure that there's always someone advocating for highway projects that local governments may have already said they are not interested in. And this one violates the spirit of last year's transportation bill, which allowed Northern Virginia counties to plan for more public transportation solutions to congestion rather than pursuing a strategy that only focuses on newer and wider roads.

Another bill that we covered and is aimed at pushing a transportation solution that local counties may not want is House Bill 1244 from Delegate Tom Rust (R-Herndon), which would study and likely advocate for another highway crossing of the Potomac River as part of the Outer Beltway. It's been referred to the appropriations committee.

And HB 957, which would delay giving the state more control over VRE's executive board, passed the House. The bill initially called for repeal but this delay means that repeal can be considered again next year.

Good news for red-light cameras, Hampton Roads

The Hampton Roads area may soon be getting a local transportation planning authority similar to the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority with HB 1253, which has moved out of committee. This may be a benefit to Northern Virginia since such a group could bolster the argument that transportation decisions can be answered effectively by local governments.

Meanwhile, House Bill 973, which would have repealed localities' authority to install red light cameras, has been defeated.

We'll keep you updated on what happens to these bills.

Roads


Self-driving cars are coming, and they could change everything we know about cities

Autonomous, self-driving vehicles are getting more attention from the media, but little from transportation planners. Given the technology's potential impacts on our transportation network, it's time for planners to start thinking about it.


Photo by Dave Schumaker on Flickr.

As the technology advances, mainstream media now treat self-driving cars with seriousness and respect, as do business advisors like KPMG. Developers are designing self-driving car use into future retirement communities, while carmakers like Mercedes advertise passive "self-driving" safety features. Analysts predict that completely autonomous cars will be on sale by 2020.

Self-driving cars have the potential to reduce both car crashes and traffic congestion, and to use wasted time driving for work or entertainment. These are benefits usually attributed to transit; as a result, autonomous vehicles could strengthen arguments for designing for more cars in our cities and suburbs, instead of more pedestrians, cyclists, and placemaking.

Transportation planners aren't talking publicly about driverless cars

By contrast, online searches for "transportation planning" and "self-driving cars" turn up thoughtful, if skeptical reviews by urbanists Todd Litman and Jarrett Walker; a sober, academic summary of key issues by the Eno Center for Transportation; and a thorough debate from 2011 on the issue here on GGW; and an article from Governing Magazine that exemplifies the public preoccupation with regulating driverless cars rather than planning and policy issues.

There isn't a lot of evidence of transportation planners at public agencies giving serious attention to the matter, at least not publicly. A recent blog entry from Bacon's Rebellion also concludes that transportation planners are not paying attention. Though, to be fair, the topic was covered at a recent Florida Department of Transportation conference and the Transportation Research Board a few weeks ago.

Self-driving cars address many of the safety and travel efficiency objections that Smart Growth advocates often make about road expansion, or the use of limited street space. As a result, planners and placemaking advocates will need to step up their game.

They need to better define in what environments bike- and pedestrian-oriented designs are still appropriate even when we can solve our congestion problems with self-driving cars. They need to promote street and intersection that can work for bikes and pedestrians as well as for self-driving cars; and to make a strong cases for Smart Growth and TOD that are based on diverse benefits, not just on the ability to move people.

Capital planning decisions last for thirty years and beyond. The officials responsible for parking lot and garage building, transit system growth, bike lane construction, intersection expansions, sidewalk improvements, and road widenings need to analyze quantitatively how self-driving cars could affect their plans, and to prepare alternatives in case things change.

How could self-driving cars disrupt the planning process?

Here are two examples of situations where planners may need to adapt to self-driving cars:

Self-driving cars coupled with "smart intersections" that communicate with vehicles to let them pass without traditional stoplight timing could result in less congestion, but may speed up cars in places where cyclists and pedestrians are competing for space. The cars will be faster, but also safer to be around. The question is whether a more efficient auto network outweighs the negative impacts to other parts of the urban environment.

They may also make car use more competitive with bus transit in low-density settings and may erode the demand and need for transit (and paratransit). On the other hand, changed transit economics resulting from driverless buses could mean that extending transit into new areas will make more economic sense in the future than it makes today.

Ways to prepare for self-driving cars

So, what could the region's planners do now to anticipate the potentially sweeping changes that self-driving cars will cause? How can planners today insure that scarce infrastructure dollars are spent on things that might be less needed in the near future?

For example, if intersections can handle more vehicles per hour with self-driving cars than with human-driven cars, they may not need to be widened. Or if transit commuters can get to the station in a self-driving car, park-and-rides may not be necessary, because the car will just drive itself back home.

First, land use, highway, and transit planners should simply acknowledge the issue. They should begin to define how large different impacts may be, when those impacts are likely to occur, what the range of public responses will need to include, and when those public responses may have to start occurring.

Self-driving cars will change patterns of car ownership and travel. Planners need to examine how travel forecasting tools that are based on current patterns of car ownership and use will need to change to adapt to new statistical relationships between population, car ownership, trip-making, car-sharing, and travel patterns.

Because cars that can drive themselves won't stay parked all day, builders and regulators should think about how new parking structures should be designed for adaptive reuse if future parking demand declines.

State and local DOTs should measure how smart intersections could increase the number of vehicles that can use an intersection per hour, and how to design roads and intersections that work for self-driving cars, as well as pedestrians, bicyclists, and the creation of public spaces.

Finally, the region's transit agencies should study how driverless operations could affect operating costs for bus, rail, and paratransit services, and should update their long-range capital and operating needs forecasts to reflect what they learn.

Many aspects of the self-driving car world remain in doubt. That is not, however, a reason to avoid thinking about how to benefit from the capabilities that self-driving vehicles offer. Even if planners are only able to do general studies rather than detailed forecasts, that would still be a useful exercise. Understanding how to adapt our communities for the benefits and challenges of self-driving cars would be a huge step forward.

Transit


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.

Roads


VA legislative update: Hybrid tax going, but bills to limit Northern Virginia remain

As the Virginia legislative session continues, lawmakers in Richmond have agreed to remove the hybrid car tax, and successfully defeated an attempt to take away Northern Virginia's ability to plan and fund its own transportation projects. But several destructive bills, including one that could force the state to widen I-66 in Arlington, are still on the table.


Photo by Mrs. Gemstone on Flickr.

Hybrid car tax poised for repeal

Several lawmakers introduced bills to repeal a tax on the sale of hybrid cars, which the state passed last year. One such bill has now passed both houses and Governor Terry McAuliffe says he will sign it.

The original bill's justification was to make sure that hybrid car owners who use less gas, and thus pay less in gas taxes, still contribute to maintaining state roads. But its critics contend that the $64 tax is an inefficient way to make up for the lost revenue and unfairly punished hybrid drivers who are helping the environment by using less gas.

Attempts to limit Northern Virginia's choices narrow

Legislators have tabled several bills that sought to restrict the power of the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA), which selects and funds transportation projects in that area. Instead, Republicans want Richmond to decide what gets built there, especially if it involves widening and building new highways.

Meanwhile, House Bill 658, sponsored by David LaRock (R-Sterling), would limit "transit, rail, and public transportation" to get at most 25% of Northern Virgnia's transportation funds. Not only is that an arbitrary standard, but it ignores how transit is already moving people and reducing highway congestion.

This proposal could prevent good transit projects from happening. If the region wants to ramp up a major new Metrorail, light rail, streetcar, or bus rapid transit project and spend more in one year than another, this cap would severely limit that ability. Besides, Northern Virginia should be able to choose how much to spend on different transportation priorities as it sees fit.

Bill would rate transportation projects on "congestion reduction"

Meanwhile, the legislature is still debating HB 2, which would require that the state pick transportation projects based on how much they are "expected to provide the greatest congestion reduction relative to cost." This relies on defining congestion solely as how many cars can move through an area, which automatically puts public transit at a disadvantage.

By its very nature, transit doesn't involve moving cars, and often requires a higher initial investment than a road project of comparable size. This proposal also ignores the ancillary benefits of transit, like lower pollution and the ability to tie transportation to land use, which can reduce overall car trips and conserve land.

"Study" bills push wasteful highway projects

A few bills require the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) to conduct studies of highway projects their authors really want to see built. HB 426, by Jim LeMunyon (R-Chantilly) demands a study of adding extra lanes (that aren't subject to HOV restrictions) on I-66 inside the Beltway in Arlington and Falls Church.

The original bill would have forced the I-66 widening to be part of VDOT's capital plan. LeMunyon changed it to only require a study, which means that even if it passes, it wouldn't necessarily mean the project happens. However, once a study gets finished, it's a lot easier for a sympathetic future administration to turn it into reality, and gives project supporters something concrete to push for.

The language doesn't allow VDOT to consider any sort of transit alternative to widening the highway, even though there is a rapid transit option, the Orange Line, literally running down the middle. It already assumes that the only solution for I-66 is more lanes for cars. Besides, VDOT already studied widening I-66, and the results show that general purpose lanes are not effective, while HOV, managed toll lanes and express bus perform better.

Another bill, HB 1244 by Thomas Rust (R-Fairfax) would push forward on studies to build an Outer Beltway with new bridges over the Potomac outside the Beltway. This would stimulate more car-dependent sprawl on what is now rural land at the region's edge.

Maryland opposes the idea, in order to protect its rural land in Montgomery's Agricultural Reserve and Charles County in southern Maryland. It instead wants to add capacity, for transit or cars, on the American Legion Bridge between Potomac and McLean, and is widening the Route 301 Henry Nice Bridge south of Washington. Despite this, former Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton initiated a study about potential new bridge locations. HB 1244 would make VDOT take the results of that study and recommend specific options.

Things are still very busy in Richmond. We are seeing the effects of local debates regarding Northern Virginia's transportation future reverberate at the state capitol just as hotly as they were contested back home. Bills rise and fall very quickly in the Virginia legislature, and we will keep you up to date on what is happening.

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