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Roads


Will Maryland spend its new transportation funds wisely?

On Monday, Governor Martin O'Malley will announce which Montgomery County transportation projects he will support with funds from the new transportation bill passed earlier this year. While there may be good news about transit, advocates are concerned about the selection process and new highway projects that may receive funding.


The ICC. Photo by Doug Kerr on Flickr.

After years of a dwindling transportation trust fund, Maryland is ready to get started on a large backlog of important transportation projects. While the new Transportation Infrastructure Investment Act will raise $4.4 billion over the next 6 years, it's not enough to finance all the competing priorities. It is unclear how state leaders will decide how to allocate the money.

Advocates from 10 organizations working in Montgomery and Prince George's counties who supported the bill released a letter today applauding funding pledged so far for transit, bicycling, and pedestrian infrastructure. But they also raised concerns over new highway capacity projects and a project selection process done behind closed doors.

Unlike Northern Virginia, there is no clear public process for project selection for transportation funding in Maryland. In the fall, MDOT will release their draft project list and hold a series of open houses, but only after the O'Malley administration has spent the spring and summer announcing the projects it will fund.

So how do transportation funding decisions really happen in Maryland? One important influence is "priority letters," from each county telling the state which projects they want funding for. But the letters themselves are often not created with much public input, and while the Montgomery and Prince George's letters embrace some transit, bike, and pedestrian projects, both focus heavily on roads.

An important influence in Maryland's transportation funding decisions should be the stated goals of the Consolidated Transportation Program (CTP). It includes several important goals that ought to be used as selection criteria for funding, including doubling transit ridership by 2020, encouraging transit-oriented development and smart growth, prioritizing system preservation, and preservation of the natural environment and rural resource lands. Just last week, O'Malley made a major announcement regarding his plan to tackle climate change, which includes investment in public transit and transit-oriented development as a core strategy.

Despite a stated commitment to smart growth, climate protection, and system preservation, O'Malley's list of projects for Prince George's includes two major new road capacity projects that direct hundreds of millions of dollars far from Metro stations or inside-the-Beltway communities. $150 million would go towards a new interchange at MD 4 (Pennsylvania Avenue) and the Suitland Parkway, which would fuel the 6,000-acre Westphalia greenfield scheme. Such an investment promises to undermine local and state goals of encouraging transit-oriented development at the county's 15 underutilized Metro stations.

O'Malley will announce Monday which projects he will fund in Montgomery, but if the county's priority letter is any indication, his list will include road projects that may work against smart growth goals. Four of these projects are road widenings and interchanges along the Route 28/198 corridor. These projects alone would cost $500 million dollars, while drawing commuters and toll revenue away from the already underutilized Intercounty Connector, which runs parallel to the road.

Meanwhile, previous announcements indicate that Maryland may use a public-private partnership, effectively borrowing against future revenues, to help pay for the Purple Line. Governor O'Malley has already pledged $280 million for design and right-of-way acquisition, but in order to open by 2020 as scheduled, the light-rail line needs $1.1 billion of local funding.

A partnership with a private company would enable the state to pay for the project over a longer time horizon. But because the Purple Line is the top priority for both Montgomery and Prince George's counties, transit advocates are asking that state funds not go to lower-priority projects until it is certain that alternative financing is really a good deal for taxpayers and riders.

Since there will never be unlimited funds for transportation, the state's investments for suburban Maryland should go towards projects that are consistent with the state's long-stated smart growth and climate protection goals. If Maryland wants to address the area's traffic challenges and air and water pollution, the state must make building the Purple Line, funding the MARC Growth and Investment Plan, and WMATA's Momentum plan its top priorities.

Roads


Do you call roads by names or numbers?

Which roads do you refer to by their names, and which by state or US highway numbers? This question came up while we were editing some posts in recent days.


Wootton Parkway. Photo from Google Maps.

MD-355 changes names several times along its route, from Wisconsin Avenue to Rockville Pike to Hungerford Drive to North/South Frederick Road/Avenue to Urbana Pike to North Market Street (did I miss any)? Though most people I know who live in Montgomery County still talk about Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda, or say they're headed to Rockville Pike for stores.

What do you call the main roads in Tysons? Are they Route 7 and 123 or Leesburg Pike and Chain Bridge Road?

Let's put aside freeways for a moment, which people almost always (but not totally always) refer to with numbers. What about major roads that serve through traffic while also having businesses and homes?

I've never heard someone talk about Route 1 instead of Rhode Island Avenue in the District, but it's usually Route 1 and not Baltimore Avenue in College Park, right? Some people refer to Richmond Highway and some to Route 1 in southern Fairfax. What about in Old Town Alexandria?

Greater Greater Wife, who grew up in Montgomery County, speaks of Georgia Avenue, Norbeck Road, Veirs Mill Road, Connecticut Avenue, University Boulevard, Old Georgetown Road, River Road, and so on rather than MD-97, MD-28, MD-596, MD-185, MD-193, MD-187, and MD-190. I've driven them all many times and still had to look up most of those numbers.

I have heard more references to MD-410, perhaps because it isn't always East-West Highway between New Carrollton and Bethesda. But MD-193 is Greenbelt Road east of about the railroad tracks in College Park and then has other names as it winds through Prince George's County.

Is it Arlington Boulevard or US-50? King Street or VA-236? Glebe Road or VA-120? Columbia Pike or VA-244?

Often, people seem to use the number more when talking about places they're mostly passing through, and the name for places they're going to. Rockville Pike is not just a road, but an assemblage of shopping centers that you go to on purpose. Columbia Pike (the Virginia one) is a corridor of neighborhoods, whereas Route 50 more bypasses neighborhoods and moves commuters. It's Colesville Road in downtown Silver Spring, a destination, and becomes Route 29 somewhere north.

If this is right, maybe Tysons' main roads will gradually evolve from Routes 7 and 123 to Leesburg Pike and Chain Bridge Road as Tysons becomes more of a walkable place.

Still, this isn't an absolute; Veirs Mill Road is not that much of a destination, or at least I've rarely gone somewhere on Veirs Mill versus using it as a conduit to or from Rockville.

When do you use names, and when do you use numbers?

Transit


Northern Virginia picks transportation projects to fund

For years, leaders in Northern Virginia have been asking Richmond to let Northern Virginia raise its own money to spend on its own transportation priorities. They are finally getting the chance.


Almost $20 million will go to new VRE railcars. Image from BeyondDC.

When the Virginia General Assembly passed a broad new transportation funding bill earlier this year, it included a section letting Northern Virginia raise and allocate hundreds of millions per year. Those new taxes began rolling in on July 1, with the beginning of Virginia fiscal year 2014.

On Wednesday night, the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA) officially approved its first set of projects. The authority allocated about $210 million, split roughly evenly between transit and roads.

The largest projects include the Silver Line's Innovation Center Metro station, new VRE railcars, and widenings along Route 28.

NVTA also approved a bond validation lawsuit that will preemptively ask Virginia courts to rule on NVTA's legality. That process should take 6-9 months, and NVTA will have to wait until it's over to actually start spending money. Taking the issue to court now means NVTA won't have to spend years fending off other court challenges.

The project list is below. For more details, see the project description sheets on NVTA's website.

ProjectFunding (millions)Location
Transit and multimodal projects
Innovation Center Metro station$41  Fairfax Co.
VRE railcars$19.8Regional
VRE Lorton station 2nd platform$7.9Fairfax Co.
WMATA buses$7  Regional
WMATA Orange Line traction power upgrades for 8-car trains$5  Regional
DASH buses$3.3Alexandria
Potomac Yard Metro station environmental study$2  Alexandria
Crystal City multimodal center bus bays$1.5Arlington
VRE Gainesville extension planning$1.5Regional
VRE Alexandria station pedestrian tunnel & platform improvements$1.3Alexandria
Herndon Metro station access improvements (road, bus, bike/ped)$1.1Fairfax Co.
ART buses$1  Arlington
Leesburg park and ride$1  Loudoun
Loudoun County Transit buses$0.9Loudoun
Route 7 Tysons-to-Alexandria transit alternatives analysis (phase 2)$0.8Regional
Falls Church pedestrian access to transit$0.7Falls Church
Duke Street transit signal priority$0.7Alexandria
PRTC bus$0.6Prince William
Alexandria bus shelters & real-time information$0.5Alexandria
Van Buren pedestrian bridge$0.3Falls Church
Falls Church bus shelters$0.2Falls Church
Road projects
Rt 28 - Linton Hall to Fitzwater Dr$28  Prince William
Rt 28 - Dulles to Rt 50$20  Fairfax Co.
Belmont Ridge Road north of Dulles Greenway$20  Loudoun
Columbia Pike multimodal improvements (roadway, sidewalk, utilities)$12  Arlington
Rt 28 - McLearen to Dulles$11.1Fairfax Co.
Rt 28 - Loudoun "hot spots"$6.4Loudoun
Chain Bridge Road widening$5  Fairfax City
Boundary Channel Dr interchange$4.3Arlington
Rt 1 - Featherstone Rd to Mary's Way$3  Prince William
Edwards Ferry Rd interchange$1  Loudoun
Herndon Parkway intersection with Van Buren St$0.5Fairfax Co.
Herndon Parkway intersection with Sterling Rd$0.5Fairfax Co.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Roads


Bi-County Parkway sprawl would enrich key boosters

On the surface, the Bi-County Parkway/Outer Beltway controversy is about transportation. But it's not. It's about growth: where should it be in Virginia? The farms of Loudoun, Prince William, and Fauquier? Or along future Silver Line stations, and closer to the core? Some people stand to benefit from more outward growth, but not most residents of our region.


Photo by Dan Reed on Flickr.

The Washington Post's Jonathan O'Connell confirms what many suspected, even though it sounded a bit like a conspiracy theory: People with large land holdings along the Bi-County Parkway route, who stand to benefit personally from building more houses there, are pouring substantial cash into lobbying efforts and campaign donations for the road.

O'Connell pulls back the curtain on the 2030 Group, an organization that appeared in 2010 with the stated goal of encouraging "regional cooperation." Cooperation is great, but 2030's version seems to mean getting all officials to cooperate on a certain, predetermined agenda of speeding up outward growth as well as infill.

The group's founder, Bob Buchanan, started the group largely because he owned 400 acres in Loudoun County but people didn't want to build there. O'Connell writes:

The family trade was home building when Buchanan returned from the Navy as a young man. He became a master of site development, the business of acquiring large tracts of land, securing the necessary zoning and transportation improvements, and readying lots for other developers to turn into subdivisions, office parks or shopping centers. ...

One of his largest deals, made a decade ago, was a 400-acre property at the intersection of Route 50, Route 606 and the Loudoun County Parkway. At that time, Loudoun housing market was seeing double-digit annual price increases. It was one of the most profitable places in the country to build new houses.

Buchanan Partners planned to turn the grassy, partially wooded site into Arcola Center, with 2 million square feet of commercial space, more than 1,000 homes and 800,000 square feet of retail around a main street anchored by a Target and other big chains.

After the housing bust, construction of exurban subdivisions froze, and the prospects for projects like Arcola dimmed. Land values and housing prices in Loudoun collapsed.

Buchanan also tells O'Connell that he's changing with the times, being more concerned about the environment, and building multi-family housing and mixed-use instead of just houses. And Arcola is mixed-use, with townhouses, offices, retail, hotels, and more.

If you're going to build in a greenfield site at the edge of the region, there is better design and worse design. But even the best greenfield town center without transit will generate more car trips compared to the same growth in the core or near Metro.

As the real estate maxim goes, "location, location, location." If the demand to live southwest of Dulles Airport is weak while prices around Metro are rising higher and higher, that tells you something.

For a developer who doesn't already own 400 acres southwest of Dulles, it tells you to try to build more housing at Metro stations and in the core. Buchanan, instead, concluded he should lobby the state to spend a billion or so to entice people to live around his 400 acres.

With development stagnant, Buchanan looked to local public officials for solutions but saw none forthcoming, he said. Frustrated, he enlisted like-minded partners to form the 2030 Group. ... In a three-year period, according to the group's tax forms, the 2030 Group spent more than $520,000 to finance research at George Mason University and the University of Maryland.
2030 hired PR firm Dewey Square Partners to promote its activities and fairly soon after released a list of transportation priorities. Longtime Virginia Outer Beltway advocate Bob Chase and Maryland outer highway advocate Rich Parsons interviewed a group of secret, unnamed "experts" to create a list that ironically matched Chase's and Parsons' existing preferences.
Buchanan said critics who worry about 2030's influence should be more concerned about how the region will handle expected growth, given its political divisions. Not building new roads, he argues, is not going to stop people from wanting to live and work in the Washington area; it will just add to the already acute traffic congestion.
"The development is coming because people are moving here and they want to live here," he said.
People are moving here. And while some want to live in all parts of the region and all housing types, the greatest demand is for new and existing walkable neighborhoods near transit.

If Buchanan really wants the region to invest where people are moving and where they want to live, he wouldn't push for an Outer Beltway segment that goes past his 400 acres; he and 2030 would push for, say, a light rail line from Tysons to Merrifield to Annandale to Alexandria, through many places already near transit, already with many roads, and where there's ample demand for new housing.

People want transit-oriented development. The region needs to build more. There isn't enough now. To have TOD, you need transit. Therefore, to build what people want, we need regional transportation dollars to go into that transit, not the Bi-County Parkway.

Roads


Virginia can't manufacture demand at Dulles

If a shrinking number of people want to fly in and out of an airport, is the solution to spend a billion dollars to build a road there? Or is the better approach to build infrastructure where people do want to go?


Photo by Adam Fagen on Flickr.

The former doesn't seem to make a lot of sense, but that's exactly what we're hearing from the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) and Virginia officials about the proposed Bi-County Parkway from Prince William County to the airport.

The Post explored the question in the July 14 Metro article "Could a Pr. William-Loudoun road revive Dulles?" The basic issue is that people seem more eager to fly in and out of Reagan National Airport than Dulles. Congress recently added exemptions to Reagan's perimeter rule that has allowed airlines to add more long-distance flights, helping to spur a 5 percent increase of passenger traffic last year. Meanwhile, Dulles saw 2 percent growth in international traffic, but domestic traffic dropped 8 percent.

Continue reading my latest op-ed in the Washington Post.

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Roads


Road advocate says car dependence is an argument for more

Virginia road lobbyist Bob Chase claims that the only "balanced" funding for transportation is to give almost all of it to roads, primarily because most people drive. But he overlooks a simple fact: most people drive because we have under-invested in other modes for a long time. That's no reason to keep it up.


Photo by Shenghung Lin on Flickr.

Washington Post columnist Robert McCartney called last week for "a balanced approach" to traffic congestion, including transit investments and smart growth as well as new road construction (though he mostly seemed to want more highways).

Chase, who heads the Outer Beltway advocacy group the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, followed up with an action alert entitled "A balance of modes?" attacking regional transportation proprities for being about half roads and half transit, or not road-heavy enough for him.

Chase wrote:

According to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments most recent household survey, 81% of daily trips are made by auto, 9% by walking or bicycle, and 6% by public transit. (In Northern Virginia auto trip percentages are slightly higher; transit slightly less.)

The Northern Virginia Transportation Authority's proposed $206.8 million pay-as-you-go and bond list for FY 2014 regional funds features 12 highway projects totaling $108.8 million and 22 transit projects totaling $98 million. Proportionally, that's 52.6% for highways and 47.3% for transit.

Distribution of Regional Transportation Funds Should Reflect a Closer Relationship to The Distribution of Users and Beneficiaries That Are Footing the Bill. [Annoying Capitalization In Original]

This is a nonsensical and nonserious argument for two reasons. First, the road network is mainly fine outside rush periods, and most of the car trips happen on less congested local roads. For commuting, which is when the traffic is worst, the transit percentage is far, far higher.

But what we spend on transportation, except for repairs (which are important) really should have nothing to do with the current mode share percentages.

Let's imagine we are in an alternate reality where we never built Metro. Very few people ride transit because there is very little of it. Does that mean in this alternate world the case for building transit is weaker? Why? Maybe it's stronger because we would be even further behind than we are today.

Or when we first built Metro, fewer people rode transit, so by Chase's logic, that makes it a bad idea to have done it then?

Any investment in new transportation is not that much about current people. Current people will keep using the current lanes, trains, etc. We can make them a little better, but any investment in a place that's got high demand will attract new users to fill up slack capacity.

New transportation infrastructure is primarily about new people. Build a road somewhere and people will move to places where that road accommodates their commute. Build a transit line and people will move to the areas around the stations if the line goes where they need to go.

A region's preexisting mode share matters little. If you want more driving and traffic and car dependent housing build more roads. If you want more transit riding and TOD build transit.

Chase wants to see Virginia develop another tier of detached house suburbs beyond the existing ones. That's his right to believe that but he should be honest about it. He's also misguided.

While our existing suburban neighborhoods are an important part of the housing mix, since new market demand is mostly for walkable urban places, what we need to do is build transportation infrastructure that feeds that kind of growth for the future, like a street grid in Tysons, new transit lines, and better sidewalks and bike facilities everywhere.

We underinvested in transit compared to other developed nations (though more than many other US cities) for a long time. That's a reason to work harder to catch up, not throw up our hands and assume that the future has to look like the past.

Roads


DC repurposes lanes, Virginia adds them

DC, Maryland, and Virginia have proposed their latest series of changes to a regional transportation plan. It's amusing to look at the list: DC's new projects are all about reconfiguring roadways to be less like highways, while Virginia's are all about adding or widening highways.


Image from the Transportation Planning Board.

This is part of an annual process where the states and DC update lists of what projects they want to do in coming years. The regional Transportation Planning Board has to ensure that the lists, which form the Constrained Long-Range Plan, fit with expected local and federal revenue, and juggles assumptions until staff can at least claim that all the new roads won't make our air quality too bad.

DC is adding 6 new projects, to construct bus lanes on I Street, make New Jersey Avenue 2-way, add a bike trail, and reduce the number of general travel lanes on 4 streets. Those projects will cost about $20.5 million altogether.

The DC changes also include the median on Pennsylvania Avenue east of the river and 2 cycle tracks which have already happened but weren't in the TPB's plan yet.

Meanwhile, Virginia wants to widen 5 highways, build new ones through Manassas Battlefield and around Dulles Airport, and add highway ramps around Tysons Corner, for a total cost of $750 million to $1.4 billion depending on what they choose for Dulles. All of that money is for car capacity; there are no transit, pedestrian, or bicycle projects being added to Virginia's list this year.

Maryland isn't changing much this round; it's just moving some money from the Corridor Cities Transitway to the Purple Line.

Here is the list of new projects for the District of Columbia (not counting ones DC is adding which are already complete):

  • I St. NW from 13th St. NW to Pennsylvania Ave. NW: Add peak period bus-only lanes
  • New Jersey Ave. NW from H St. NW to N St. NW: Reconstruct from 4 lanes one-way to 2 lanes in each direction
  • 17th St. NE/SE from Benning Rd. NE to Potomac Ave. NE: Reduce from 2 lanes to 1 lane southbound
  • C St. NE from 16th St. NE to Oklahoma Ave. NE: Remove 1 of 2 travel lanes in each direction to calm traffic
  • East Capitol St. from 40th St. to Southern Ave.: Implement pedestrian safety and traffic operations improvements and remove 1 of 3 travel lanes in each direction
  • South Capitol St. from Firth Sterling Ave. SE to Southern Ave. SE: Design and construct a paved bicycle and pedestrian trail and reduce the number of lanes from 5 to 4
Here's the list for Virginia:
  • Widen I-395, Shirley Memorial Highway, Southbound from Duke St. to Edsall Rd.
  • Capital Beltway HOT Lanes: The segment of HOT Lanes between south of the George Washington Pkwy and
    south of Old Dominion Dr. was planned to be 2 lanes wide. VDOT proposes to make this segment 4 lanes wide.
  • Capital Beltway Ramps at Dulles Airport Access Highway and Dulles Toll Road: Construct a new ramp connecting the northbound general purpose lanes on I-495 to the inner lanes of westbound Dulles Airport Access Highway. Widen the ramp connecting eastbound Dulles Toll Road to the northbound general purpose lanes on I-495 from 1 to 2 lanes.
  • Widen US 1, Jefferson Davis Highway from Lorton Rd. to Annapolis Way from 4 to 6 lanes.
  • Widen VA 7, Leesburg Pike from I-495 to I-66 from 4 to 6 lanes.
  • Construct 2-lane collector-distributor roads parallel to Dulles Toll Road between VA 684, Spring Hill Rd. and VA 828, Wiehle Ave.
  • Dulles Toll Road Ramps in Tysons: Construct a ramp to and from the Dulles Toll Rd. to the new Boone Blvd. extension at Ashgrove Lane. Construct a ramp to and from the Dulles Toll Rd. to the new Greensboro Dr. extension at Tyco Rd.
  • Dulles Greenway Ramp: Construct a new egress ramp from the Dulles Greenway to the planned Hawling Farm Blvd.
  • "Improved access" to Dulles Airport: [4 alternatives, a no-build and 3 that involve new 4-lane limited access highways or widening US-50 and VA-606.]
  • VA 28 Manassas Bypass: Study a proposed 4 to 6 lane bypass through Prince William and Fairfax Counties.
And Maryland:
  • Change in project cost of the Corridor Cities Transitway from $1.2 billion to $828 million
  • Change in project cost of the Purple Line from $1.79 billion to $2.245 billion
These changes don't necessarily reflect the mix of projects in the plan overall, just the changes this year. For example, DC is soon going to spend hundreds of millions on a new South Capitol Bridge which will be wider than the old one, while there are major transit and bicycle and pedestrian projects in the plan for various parts of Northern Virginia.

Still, this gives something of a glimpse into what's on the minds of transportation planners in each jurisdiction right now. DC is spending some small dollars to reconstruct roads to better accommodate pedestrians, cyclists, and buses; Viginia is spending big dollars on new road capacity.

Roads


Cyclists reported potholes, and DDOT filled most of them

Each spring, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) tries to fill thousands of potholes around the city. This year, I put them to the test by biking around DC and reporting and tracking as many potholes as I could find. Most got filled, though some better than others.


Photo by Wayan Vota on Flickr.

DDOT announced last month that the agency had filled nearly 4,000 potholes during its fifth annual Potholepalooza initiative, a marked increase from previous years. Officials say they dispatched multiple crews, including 3 "pothole killer" trucks each day to make repairs.

Using 311 Online, I submitted 80 pothole service requests for 236 potholes during Potholepalooza. That's nearly 10% of the 849 requests DDOT received. DDOT filled 177 of the potholes, or 75%. I was impressed with how quickly DDOT responded to me. In most cases, inspectors noted and sometimes filled the potholes I reported within 24 hours.

Of the 59 potholes that weren't filled, most were on streets where I reported numerous potholes. It seemed DDOT picked and chose which ones to fill. In 2 places, on Ontario Street NW between Florida Avenue and Kalorama Road, and on Quebec Street NW next to Sidwell Friends, there were large groups of potholes that never got filled.


A map of where potholes were filled (green) and not filled (red). Click for an interactive map.

DDOT didn't fill small or out of the way potholes

I also noticed and reported several potholes directly around manhole covers, but none of those got repaired. DDOT also avoided making repairs to potholes near ongoing road construction (where a lot of other, non-pothole gashes and ruts were present) and generally neglected to fill the smaller holes I reported. I would often report 5-10 potholes on the same rutty block and find that only the larger ones had been filled.

I also reported a number of potholes on Maine Avenue, Benning Road, East Capitol Street and Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway, but DDOT representatives told me that they weren't under their jurisdiction, at least for repairing potholes.

The pothole fillers didn't repair all potholes in the same way. For most potholes, they used a hot, black asphalt mix, but about half of the potholes I saw also had an additional layer of gray gravel that seemed to form a stronger bond. Meanwhile, a good portion of those filled with just asphalt have already become potholes again.

Unfortunately, when DDOT uses gravel to strengthen a pothole repair, they routinely leave excess gravel on the road. The bike lanes on Calvert Street NW between Adams Morgan and Woodley Park have been littered with excess gravel for several months as a result of numerous pothole repairs, many of which I reported. This creates an entirely new hazard to bikers that may be worse than the original potholes.

These inconveniences suggest that the Potholepalooza program is designed more for motorists than for cyclists. Small ruts and loose gravel are scarcely concerns for a 4,000 pound car, but present dangerous obstacles to a cyclist.

I noticed that DDOT were more likely to fill potholes in the middle of the street than those on the side. I reported over 20 potholes on 17th Street NW, just south of Pennsylvania Avenue. 14 of these were in car lanes and 6 were near curbs, where only bikes would ride. DDOT filled 13 of the 14 car lane holes and just 2 of 6 roadside holes, despite all of them being very near one another.

This is a small sample, but I saw the trend repeated across the city. If a pothole was small or in a location where cars don't go, it was much more likely to stay a pothole.

Potholes got filled everywhere, but roads in affluent neighborhoods were worse

I wondered whether certain areas and neighborhoods would receive preferential treatment from service crews. Fortunately, this was not the case. After reporting at least a few potholes in every ward, but mostly in wards 1, 2, 3 and 5, I found no significant geographic differences in fill rates. DDOT filled roughly 3 out of every 4 potholes regardless of where they were.

However, I was surprised to find that some of the most affluent neighborhoods in Northwest DC seem to have the worst roads. Biking through areas like Petworth or Brookland, I seldom saw clusters of potholes and often went 15 minutes without seeing anything worth recording.

But I also found streets, like 34th Street in Cleveland Park or R Street in Georgetown, that looked like they'd been subjected to mortar practice. Downtown, 17th Street near Pennsylvania Avenue and N Street NW between 17th and 18th streets need serious help as well. These streets don't just need their potholes filled, they need to be repaved completely.

When I first announced my project, several commenters said that filling individual potholes was frivolous in the face of larger bicycle and road quality concerns. And they're right. Even if DC filled every pothole, there would still be many dangers for cyclists, like construction ditches, metal plates, or sewer grates. Filling potholes is inherently temporary, a series of Band-Aids on a chronically ill patient.

All that said, I did not bike around Washington for a month in search of potholes with any hope of seriously improving road conditions. I was more interested in the notion that an individual could make a small difference in the roads they used by reporting problems to the city. I wanted to see whether DDOT would really respond if I submitted hundreds of potholes. For the most part, they did.

It's easy to complain about bad roads, but as it turns out, it's almost as easy to report them. So the next time you're on your bike and you see a big hole, you should tell the city. If you're sick of a bumpy ride on a decaying street, you should report it. Odds are, DDOT might do something about it.

Roads


What's a better connection for Montgomery and Fairfax?

The American Legion Memorial Bridge helped usher in an era of suburban growth for Montgomery and Fairfax counties, which combined have over 2 million residents and 1.1 million jobs. As both counties have grown, the bridge remains the only link between them, and one almost exclusively dependent on single-occupancy vehicles.


Photo by bankbryan on Flickr.

The George Mason University Center for Regional Analysis (CRA) recently completed a study, Beyond the Legion Bridge, with recommendations on how to improve connections and offer more transportation options between Montgomery and Fairfax counties.

Today, there aren't any HOV or express lanes across the bridge, nor is there any direct transit service. Meanwhile, traffic on the bridge continues to grow as almost all travel demand between the counties flows across the bridge as motor vehicle traffic.


Population & Employment Growth, 1960-2010


Traffic Counts 1965-2040

Why is traffic getting worse? CRA found that while the number of daily commuters between Montgomery and Fairfax has fallen over the past 20 years, the number of long-distance commuters going to or from outer suburban counties like Frederick, Loudoun or Prince William has increased, creating more traffic on the bridge. Meanwhile, 37% of trips over the Legion Bridge come from through-travelers or heavy trucks, adding to the burden placed on the bridge by commuters.

In 2009, Maryland and Virginia's departments of transportation studied a 14-mile segment of I-495 and I-270 between Tysons Corner and Gaithersburg. They looked at a variety of potential changes, including restriping the highway to create more lanes, creating reversible lanes, or widening the bridge altogether.

The study found that minor improvements would not have much impact and even massive projects with price tags as high as $2.65 billion would only have modest impacts on congestion. Clearly, no amount of money or engineering expertise applied to moving more vehicles over the bridge will solve the congestion problem.

Small fixes could create some breathing room

Given these challenges, what can leaders in Maryland and Virginia do? In the short term, I suggest three relatively simple strategies to mitigate the negative effects that traffic congestion has on the economy and quality of life.

  • Reduce demand for trips during peak period: For starters, we need to reduce the number of vehicle trips during rush hour. In the short term, we can do this by encouraging carpooling, vanpooling, transit use, alternative work hours, and telecommuting. These strategies will help the growing number of commuters who essentially have no existing option but to use the Legion Bridge and its congested feeder routes. This requires a coordinated effort from both states.
  • Provide alternatives for heavy trucks: Though heavy trucks make up just a small share of trips over the Legion Bridge, they have substantial impacts on its effectiveness. Since neither county has much of a manufacturing or warehousing base, most goods traveling on the bridge are either passing through or are going to retailers in each county. We should find potential alternate routes or bypasses for through trucks, while taking a look at how goods headed to each county get there.
  • Limit unnecessary bridge traffic: Some commuters who live in Montgomery County use the bridge only to reach the George Washington Parkway on their way to the District or Arlington. Low-cost solutions such as transit incentives, commuter buses or vanpools could give them an alternative. Meanwhile, more could be done to discourage through-traffic from outside the region from using the Legion Bridge, especially during the afternoon rush hour.
Long-term, a big fix is transit

While these interventions would relieve some pressure on the Legion Bridge, their benefits pale in comparison to those of a direct, high-capacity transit connection between Montgomery and Fairfax counties, specifically between Bethesda and Tysons Corner. They are already two of the largest employment and commerce hubs in the region, and plans for both areas direct future growth around their Metrorail stations.

Though they're only seven miles apart, it's hard to travel between them on transit. A Metrobus route ran from Bethesda to Tysons Corner from 1998 to 2003, but failed because there wasn't a dedicated lane to make it more reliable.

Even after the Silver Line opens, a Metro trip between Bethesda and Tysons will take about an hour via Metro Center. A direct transit link, whether heavy rail, light rail, or express bus, would provide a faster and more efficient connection.

Political and business leaders on both sides of the Potomac have shown a willingness to think big and make necessary investments in road and transit infrastructure. Both Montgomery and Fairfax counties are also working to reduce car trips by building transit lines, like the Purple Line, Corridor Cities Transitway, and the Silver Line.


Option 1: Extend the Purple Line

Where would a new line go? One option would be to extend the Purple Line from its planned terminus in downtown Bethesda to either the future McLean or Tysons Corner Silver Line stations or the existing Dunn Loring Metro station. This 8-mile route could have additional stops at commercial nodes along the way, like Kenwood and Sumner in Maryland, and Langley and McLean Village in Virginia.

The public already owns much of the necessary right-of-way for this route. In Maryland, the line could run along Little Falls Parkway and the Capital Crescent Trail, while in Virginia, it could use Route 123. However, there would have to be a new bridge over or tunnel under the Potomac River somewhere south of Little Falls Dam, which could be very expensive.


Option 2: Use I-495

Another option could be to add a transitway along the Capital Beltway between Grosvenor and Tysons Corner. This could be an express bus route, which could predictably make the 12-mile trip in about 15 minutes, compared to over an hour under current rush hour conditions. Or it could be a heavy rail line, which would boost capacity, allow for additional stops, or even offer a one-seat ride between Shady Grove and Dulles Airport.

Other than the cost, this option's biggest shortcoming is that it doesn't make a direct connection between Bethesda and Tysons Corner. A third option would be to build both routes, though this would obviously be even more expensive.

What about the Techway?

Soon after the Legion Bridge opened, Maryland and Virginia began discussing another highway connection over the Potomac River. Called the Techway by supporters or the Zombie Outer Beltway by opponents, the project has had many fits and starts over the years.

At the moment, neither state has any serious plans to build it, though some officials and advocacy groups have kept the plan alive.

Even if a new crossing were built, history and academic research suggest that new highway infrastructure does not remove congestion from existing roads. Instead, new highways tend to stimulate additional residential and commercial development which, in turn, increases the overall volume of traffic in a given area. The highway still might get built one day, but if so, its presence would still not likely address the demand along the Legion Bridge corridor.

Looking ahead, Montgomery and Fairfax counties need better connectivity to protect the economy, public services, and quality of life that both counties have spent decades building. Achieving this goal will require both a unified vision from political and business leaders in both Maryland and Virginia, and a long-term commitment to investing in the necessary improvements.

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