The completion of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge project connecting Virginia and Maryland in one of the region’s most congested corridors is the latest in a number of major infrastructure projects that are unfolding in the Washington metropolitan area.
The Silver Line rail link to Dulles Airport, the HOT lanes projects on I-495 and I-95 in Virginia, and the ICC and Purple Line in Maryland all raise an issue government agencies, planners and transit advocates have been grappling with for decades: how to connect a growing population with job centers in one of the nation’s most economically vital regions, where low unemployment rates and continued growth defy the national trend.
Moreover, at a time when funding for transportation projects is increasingly difficult to obtain, choosing the wrong solution to traffic congestion is all the more costly; there is no way to undo a $2 billion dollar road or rail link if it ultimately does not meet a region’s needs. Urban planners have argued that widening major highways will only temporarily relieve bottlenecks.
“If you have job centers that are accessible from a wider geographic span, you are going to get the best talent to your job center,” said John Undeland, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Transportation’s part of the Wilson Bridge project. “But if congestion is constricting those opportunities, so you are only able to draw a talent pool from a smaller geographic area, it doesn't work as well.”
On Monday, after a decade of construction, five lanes were opened in each direction between the busy Telegraph Road interchange in Virginia and the bridge connecting to Maryland, ending a terrible bottleneck that routinely caused traffic jams that stretched for miles.
“It’s a soul-killing experience to be sitting there day after day,” Undeland said.
While the Woodrow Wilson Bridge has improved the driving experience, transit advocates say it is a missed opportunity that speaks to a larger issue: whether the regional economy will continue to prosper through a reliance on highway expansion. Once-promising plans to use the Wilson Bridge’s center lanes for rail transit were never realized.
Over three-quarters of all jobs in the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. are located in neighborhoods with transit service, according to a research paper by Adie Tomer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program.
“The reality is in terms of sustainability, we cannot endlessly build roads forever. We can't continue to take up endless amount of land space for highways,” said Tomer, who said highway expansion can be an effective as part of a multi-modal solution to congestion. For instance, the I-495 HOT lanes project in northern Virginia will charge motorists a premium toll to avoid the normally congested non-toll lanes while also promoting carpooling and some express bus service.
“The solutions that work in each community are so different. Transit can only work in certain communities. In others, private automobile use or carpooling is going to be the preferred commuting mode,” Tomer said.
As important as finding the right mix of transportation infrastructure is where corporations decide to locate their job centers. In Tomer’s view, different jurisdictions are better served thinking regionally as they compete to attract corporate headquarters within their boundaries. Wherever a company decides to locate, the offices should be near a regional transit network so people from further distances may easily commute there.
“A whole suite of investments is what will help this metropolitan economy prosper. We need to continue to invest in public transportation. Fortunately, we are doing that here,” he said.
But large companies still have to make the right decisions, at least in the view of smart growth advocates. They point to the example of Northrop Grumman, which rejected a transit-adjacent site in Ballston in favor of a suburban office park near the Beltway and Route 50 when choosing a location for its headquarters.