November 21, 2011

Shaping the Future of the Region

The following was delivered by the 2030 Group’s President, Bob Buchanan, in front of the Committee for Dulles on October 20, 2011.

It has been far too long since our regional leaders really tried to shape the future of the Washington Metropolitan Area.  I am reminded of a preface to an information package I received in the late ‘90’s in preparation for a gathering of leaders from the public and private sectors to discuss The Partnership for Regional Excellence.  In that preface written by Don Graham of the Washington Post, he cited how the region’s leadership had come together around 1900 to preserve and create Rock Creek Park which became a major and unique asset for our city.  Then in the 1950’s the region’s leaders determined to develop a Metro system to provide regional transit to bring the suburbs and city together for both economic development and quality of life.  Don indicated that these had been 50 years apart; so what would be our legacy in the year 2000?  I am afraid that answer is still in question, and I see no evidence that any of our leaders – public, private, civic or academic – are in any meaningful discussion what that might be.

When I was raised, one had to be accountable for one’s actions, and there was little if any sense of entitlement.  In fact I never even heard the phrase until recent years.  Today, however, those two words – accountability and entitlement – seem to be totally reversed.  No one seems to be accountable for instance for the transportation crisis we are experiencing today.  And on that subject, if you think traffic is not going to get worse, listen to Steve Fuller’s projections about commuters driving into our region each day to get to work: Today it is 330,000.  In the year 2030, that number grows to 750,000!  Where are the new lanes much less roads to accommodate them?  Don’t answer transit and TOD’s.  Only 20% of trips generated in the region now do not use an automobile; do we really think that small use of transit will change dramatically over the next 20 years?  And when it comes to entitlement, it seems far too many of us think we deserve whatever because we went to some school or live in a prosperous community or maybe just because we are Americans.  We need to get real, get more involved in our communities, and bring more business perspectives to the challenges that confront us.

So who am I to talk, and why does the 2030 Group exist?

As a third generation developer, I have been fortunate during my 40 plus year career to have had projects in over a dozen jurisdictions in the region.  By region I do not mean Northern VA or Suburban MD.  We all need to start thinking about the entire region because the growth we have enjoyed over the last 20 years is likely to be repeated over the next, but the jurisdictions have no more real capacity for that growth.  Good, sustainable growth must come from regional thinking and cooperation, long term decisions, and implementation.

I have handed out a recent update from the 2030 Group.  I expect most of you know many of the members.  As you can see, it is a group of business leaders throughout the region, many of whom are multi-generational in their own right.  The Group formed because we did not see any regional entity (public or private) addressing long term growth needs and trying to resolve them.  The 2030 Group knew we needed to gather the pertinent facts for any meaningful public education and dialogue; so we began with research from Steve Fuller and George Mason’s Center for Regional Analysis regarding the long term trends for our future economy.  That was followed up with research and analysis by the University of MD School of Public Policy and Private Enterprise which studied why this region has never had any regional governance and what might be ways to overcome that lack of leadership .  In fact there are very few regional authorities here who have the ability to plan, raise funds, and implement their own decisions.  The Council of Governments is not one.  WAMATA and MWAA are on a very short list of those institutions empowered with any regional scope.  Unfortunately both organizations have not fared well recently when it comes to leadership.

Based on the findings of Steve Fuller’s study, it became apparent that there were huge impacts of the region’s projected growth on infrastructure (particularly transportation), workforce training and education, and workforce housing.  The fact that there was not much regional cooperation or sense of regionalism compounded the problem.  COG generated its Region Forward, a model plan for what our community should be like in 2050, but it is really a glorified wish list because COG has no way to implement it.  In fact, some leaders at COG recognize that its elected officials know they will continue to get re-elected if they focus on local matters and not regional ones.  The lack of regionalism is so ingrained among those in the public sector, that when the 2030 Group commissioned a survey of transportation experts in the region to determine what they thought about regional priorities, the participants wanted to remain anonymous due to the political ramifications if they were associated with many of their responses.  None admitted to even being tasked with regional planning in their jobs.

So where are we now?  We know that the system we have is either dysfunctional and/or not working to develop the regional decisions needed to improve our transportation crisis.  It cannot be solved by a reliance on transit which COG and the Smart Growth folks seem to have adopted as the solution to sprawl.  They are doing a lot of good work but only concentrating on part of the solution.  We need both transit and roads, and we need a larger more comprehensive view.  Most of the regional GNP is generated now without any access to transit.  Over 25% of the entire metropolitan area’s GNP is generated just in the Dulles and Rte 28 Corridors alone.  Until we learn how to better connect the places where people are living with where they are and will be working, we will continue to have problems.  It is predicted that much of the growth over the next 20 years will be in Northern VA between Rte 7 and I95.  Other than the Silver and perhaps Purple lines, I doubt there will be an extension of rail anytime soon, so transportation needs must be met in the form of better bus systems and better road capacity.  We obviously need at least one more river crossing, but when will we start demanding such discussion from our politicians?

On Oct 25, Steve Fuller will release an important Housing Study which should cause many of our jurisdictions to develop an appropriate housing policy.  Yes we have the highest concentration of highly educated workers which is projected to grow by some 2.8 million in newly created or replacement jobs, but what will these jobs pay, what kind of residential product can they afford, and where will they be located?  On an annual basis we have never come close to delivering the number of residential units that will be needed to supply the expected demand.

Another issue is the growing gap between the students we are producing and the skill sets needed for the jobs being created.  We import more employees than any other metropolitan area in the country.  50% of the students attending our community colleges are not college ready and have to take remedial courses.  We have more than twice the concentration of STEM jobs (science, technology, engineering and math) than the national average, but our school systems are not adapting fast enough to this phenomenon.

So where are we headed?  First of all we need to recalibrate what is ‘normal,” and it will not be driven by federal spending.  That 15 year old boon is over for the time being.  We still have a high quality workforce, however, which will need to be turned loose in the tech sector.  That sector is more global than most and with the emphasis on national and international markets, Dulles should continue to be the beneficiary of that growth.  Those working in the private sector in this region are not only highly educated, but they are also worldly and sophisticated and will continue to develop the connection between business and government to make the region a real global power center.

The good fortunes of the region will not be shared by all, and we need to be cognizant of that.  Our Main Street is the I-95 Corridor.  Those on the east of it have and will continue to struggle.  We have not experienced social problems in our community for some time, but the gap between our haves and have not’s can only grow so long before the region suffers.

My call to action to you is to get more involved, get regional, and think longer term to sustain our prosperity and quality of life.  Help carry the 2030 Group message to the general public. Most local politicians have only a short range focus due to their term in office.  If we do not demand more regional thinking and action, our growth projections may fall far short.  The Federal government needs to be at the regional table, and so do we.

[as prepared for the Committee for Dulles]

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