An axiom of U.S. transportation policy since the construction of the interstate highway system—to relieve congestion build more lanes—may be giving way to the realization that states cannot pave their way out of that problem.
People are driving less as measured by vehicle miles traveled (VMT), and the enormous cost of expanding lanes may be seen as prohibitive. But the shift in thinking is far from complete, as Maryland recently opened the $2 billion Intercounty Connector (ICC) and Virginia opened the 495 Express Lanes on the Beltway, which were built mostly with private capital. Critics contend both toll roads are lightly used by motorists at great cost to the treasury and the environment.
The drop in driving has transit and smart growth advocates calling on policy makers to reassess priorities before committing to spending billions more on highway projects that may have minimal long-term benefits. A report in The Atlantic Cities said Maryland transportation officials, after projecting VMT growth for decades to come, changed their forecasts, noting “a return to strong annual VMT growth is unlikely.”
While the Maryland Department of Transportation’s official policy is to tackle congestion relief through road and transit projects, the department’s data shows VMT has been flat for the past decade. When population growth is taken into consideration, VMT per capita has dropped significantly, from 10,041 in 2007 to 9,541 in 2013.
Advocates of road building say despite the decline in driving, most trips in the Washington metropolitan area are taken still by the single-occupant vehicle, necessitating large investments to relieve bottlenecks on the roads.
“You wouldn’t stop building roads any more than you would stop building schools,” said Bob Chase, the president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance.
For years Chase has called on officials in both Virginia and Maryland to agree to build a new crossing over the Potomac connecting the two states west of the congested American Legion Bridge.
“We have more people commuting and traveling between jurisdictions in the metropolitan Washington area than in any other part of the country. Our economy — our lifestyle — is dependent upon moving goods and services between states, so you need to focus on the framework that connects the economy,” Chase said.
While Virginia continues to study whether a new bridge is necessary, Maryland remains uninterested in such a project.
The long-running contention over a new Potomac bridge reflects a larger debate: which projects are the right projects?
“Bob's approach is what got us into this mess in the first place,” said Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. “The effort to try to keep saving time by widening every road has meant we have spread out more and more, forcing people to drive longer and longer distances.”
Schwartz said the region’s anticipated population growth does not necessarily have to translate into worse congestion.
“D.C. has added 83,000 people and seen a decline in car ownership, vehicle registrations, and driver’s licenses in the city. So the more communities we are building in the D.C. area that are close to transit, are walkable, have a mix of jobs, housing, retail and other services, the less people have to drive,” he said.
“It is a product of a number of things: retiring, down-sizing baby boomers and young adults looking for urban living and wanting to drive less, the impact of high oil prices, and the lasting effect of the internet which has led to a huge jump in telecommuting and internet shopping,” Schwartz added. “All are contributing to less driving, and merit re-evaluating our state transportation programs.”
Per capita VMT figures nationally have dropped significantly since peaking in 2005. But to Chase, the statistics do not prove more roads are unnecessary.
“VMT really is a bogus measure,” he said. “It’s a very hard thing to calculate and it is not how people make decisions. People make decisions on the basis of time, and the real measure of how well a transportation system is working and how we ought to make our investments is: how long does it take people to get places?”
The relatively few drivers who use the ICC or 495 Express Lanes on a regular basis are saving time. Both toll roads are congestion free, and supporters say the projects have improved traffic flow on nearby roads (or lanes, in the case of the Express Lanes) by drawing away vehicles from them.
To opponents of the expensive highway expansions like Schwartz, the costs will never justify the benefits.
“That is what this is about,” Schwartz said. “Trying to avoid wasting our scarce tax dollars by selecting our projects more wisely, focusing on fixing our existing infrastructure first, and also recognizing the significance of these [driving] trends—(which are) tied to the types of communities people want to live in where they can drive less.