Washington, D.C. Region's Economic Future Tied to Cars -- Or Is It?

Tuesday, October 16, 2012 - 10:44 AM

(photo by Elvert Barnes via flickr)

For the thousands of commuters who spend too much of their lives sitting in traffic on the Washington area’s hopelessly congested roads, the future may not look much better than the present. Despite some large investments in mass transit projects, like the Silver Line rail link to Dulles Airport, about three-fourths of all economic activity – from shopping to commuting to work – will be the result of automobile trips in 2040, virtually unchanged from present day, according to a report by the George Mason University Center for Regional Analysis.

In 2007, 74 percent of gross regional product (GRP) – a measure of all income -- was the result of car travel. By 2040 it will be 73 percent, according to the study’s authors, who forecast total GRP by that year to potentially amount to $1.8 trillion, up from the current $429 billion. The projections are based on where the study places the region’s major job centers: in the outer suburbs, implying that a regime of road building will be necessary to accommodate the region’s growth.  The study was prepared for the 2030 Group, a group of real estate developers.

The study is flawed, according to mass transit advocates.

“I think it is out of sync with changing demographics and the huge market demand to live not just in the city but to live in neighborhoods that are walkable and near transit,” says Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, which advocates transit-oriented development. “This is a report that seems to, through some magic they have applied, allocate significant portions of regional growth to outer suburban job centers.  They are arguing for more highway investment over transit investment in the region.”

The study designates the Tysons Corner-Dulles corridor as the most prominent “activity center” that will see significant changes in transportation use thanks to the arrival of the Silver Line, but the overall forecast allows for minor shifts in mode changes, including bicycling/walking.  Schwartz says the forecast overlooks surging demand for living in urban, walkable places.

“We are changing our land uses and have shown that compact, walkable neighborhoods with transit generate far fewer car trips and shorter car travel distances,” he says. “A younger generation is driving less, living in cities and an older generation of downsizing empty nesters and retirees will not be driving as much. They are out of touch with the trends. They are trying to justify more outer suburban growth,” referring to suburban real estate developers in the 2030 Group.

Whatever transportation infrastructure will be necessary for the expected population and job growth, current levels of government investment are grossly inadequate, according to Bob Chase, the president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, a group that supports highway construction.

“What the study shows is that most of the economic activity centers are heavily dependent upon a good road network, but roads also move buses.  It’s not just about cars,” Chase said.  “We’re not going to have the transportation network to support that type of economy. If we don’t invest more in transportation, we’re not likely to have the economic future that most people would want.”

One possible source of funds would be an increased state and/or federal gas tax, something few politicians are willing to publicly endorse. The current federal gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon has not been increased since 1993.

“The cost of construction and the cost of maintenance have gone up. The cost of just petroleum products that go into asphalt has gone up 350% in the last ten years,” Chase says.  “If you want to have a strong economy, if you want to have jobs for your kids, you need to make a greater investment in transportation, and the failure to do so is going to cost every person far more in terms of lost wages, lost opportunities, and a deteriorated quality of life, than paying a few more pennies on the gas tax.”

Chase says Virginia and Maryland could also raise sales taxes or create surcharges on income taxes to pay for infrastructure investment.


Comments [3]

Reggie Arkell

The purpose of the study was to measure the relationships between transportation
system use and economic growth as measured by GRP. The primary assumptions include continued: 1) development in areas dependent on auto use due to perceived market demand; and 2) dominant auto use in all areas, including locations with higher densities and transit availability. Consequently, significant road expenditures are necessary to address congestion/auto travel demand. The conclusions are logical and appear valid given these parameters.

The outcome would likely be much different if the purpose of the study was to measure transport system use with improved built environment efficiency and quality of life using the comprehensive triple bottom line method for balanced economic, social, and environmental elements. Market demand for low density land uses and high auto-oriented travel is significantly skewed by the unaccounting of social and environmental costs of these choices. Most empirical evidence reveals that a $1.00 per gallon or more additional charge or equivalent VMT/pricing fee would increase economic efficiency and reduce externalities. Further, implementing policies to improve cost effectiveness that is monitored with quantified metrics would improve modal balance and provide higher economic benefits due to the savings on transportation expenditures (e.g. street connectivity indexes; per capita VMT; % pop. near transit stop; perceived population densities/density gradient indexes; household transport expenditures, etc.). In short, higher GRP, equity, environmental and overall quality of life benefits would result in alternative growth/development scenarios.

Oct. 20 2012 12:58 PM
Leo Schefer

The only magic in the 2030 Group’s report is hard fact. Northern Virginia Regional Commission’s analysis of current and 2040 land-use patterns projected by local governments prepared last March for the Fairfax County Energy Task Force shows that today less than 5% of Fairfax County citizens live within walking distance of a rail transit stop (including the Silver Line stations now under construction). With all the planned Transit Oriented Development, this 5% is only projected to increase to 7.5% by 2040.

We can expect bus based transit to expand, but it will be dependent on roads. So whether you favor transit or the automobile, we need to cure highway congestion, as it’s unlikely that elected officials will be willing to close existing highway lanes and dedicate them to transit.

Oct. 17 2012 03:55 PM
The 2030 Group

We all want the Washington Metropolitan Region’s economy to expand and offer its residents the high quality of life they deserve; that’s why The 2030 Group has been commissioning and funding studies, research, and analysis which are academic, scientific, and based on objective data. The criticism put forth here ignores this particular study’s findings.

According to the Council of Governments, 80% of the land use (homes, offices, commercial, retail etc.) that will be in place in 2040 is in place today. Of the remaining 20% some will certainly focus around transit. When local planners were asked to look at how much of this future population growth is likely to be centered around transit, the numbers are relatively small, less than 20%. The rest will be located throughout the region in patterns much as exist today.

The GMU study acknowledges that significant new transit development will occur, particularly in the Tysons/Reston/Herndon/Dulles Corridor areas. However, transit oriented development requires good external access and internal circulation. Absent such funding much of this projected transit oriented development might not occur.

In the end, transit oriented development is important. It can help make current and future highway, bridge and transit investments opiate more effectively. However, it is not a substitute for them.

Oct. 17 2012 11:31 AM

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