Needed: Top-Down Regional Transportation Planning

May 28, 2012
By The 2030 Group

Bob Chase is President of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance.

The National Capital Region is home of the world’s most powerful nation.

It also is home to the nation’s worst traffic congestion. Even worse is the fact that it lacks a serious performance-based strategy to do anything about it despite forecasts of 1.6 million more people and another 1 million jobs in the next 20 years. So traffic congestion is destined to increase substantially.

Why?

Funding is part of the problem but even more fundamental is the fact that no one is in charge and planning is largely a bottom-up, parochially oriented process as opposed to a top-down, regionally focused process.

Today, regional planning is conducted by the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board (TPB) which is the transportation arm of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, a federally mandated Metropolitan Planning Organization or MPO. This sounds impressive. However, in reality the TPB consists of the states of Maryland and Virginia, theDistrict of Columbiaand 20 other local jurisdictions.

No Board member is elected to or held accountable for addressing the region’s transportation problem, only making certain that whatever projects they favor appear on the plan. However, a collection of locally or even state-selected projects does not a regional plan make.

For more than a decade the TPB has focused on a series of transit-only solutions that are demonstrably inadequate and land use scenarios that are demonstrably unachievable. To be clear, more public transit and better land use are part of the solution. However, TPB study after study shows they do not seriously reduce congestion or improve mobility for most area residents.

Last year the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance and Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance surveyed nearly 50 area public and private sector transportation professionals on the most important highway, bridge and transit investments the region could make to improve transportation over the next two decades. All questions were open ended and respondents were asked to eschew political considerations and identify projects of greatest merit.

The results showed that two – new Potomac River Bridges and Regional Bypasses and Connectors – of the top four most frequently preferred priorities are facilities that have been specifically placed off limits by TPB members. (The other two are Metro Maintenance and Regional Bus Rapid Transit).

How does the region ever seriously solve transportation problems when its regional planning body refuses to consider projects that transportation professionals consider among the most effective solutions? Similarly, how does it ensure regional safety when the TPB refuses to identify regional chokepoints that hamper regional evacuation in the event of a homeland security emergency or how to fund transportation needs when it refuses to identify and try to build consensus around regional funding mechanisms?

The TPB has established no regional priorities. Long lists of projects to be certain, but no short-list of performance-based priorities.

Sound regional planning requires establishment of a professionally staffed entity charged with identifying the best transportation solutions, not just the most politically correct or acceptable solutions. The nation’s worst congestion can only be tamed with serious, performance-based solutions aimed specifically are reducing congestion and travel times.

To be implemented, regional plans must ultimately pass political muster. However, that process should start with a product that incorporates the best bridge, road, and transit solutions and an entity that will advocate for the plan. Compromise is inevitable. However, by starting with the best or even some compromise, the odds of reducing congestion, improving mobility, and ensuring regional prosperity and quality of life are immeasurably better than the current process.

Residents of the National Capital Region deserve a world class multi-modal transportation network. With a top-down, regionally-focused, professional planning and advocacy entity such a system is possible.