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Transportation Nation

D.C. Suburb, at a "Crossroads," Eyes Bus Rapid Transit

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

WAMU

The official kickoff to Montgomery County's BRT discussion was punctuated by worry and hope -- and was underscored by the sense that the densely populated county is at the transportation crossroads.

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Transportation Nation

Meet the Little Known Board Making Big Virginia Transportation Decisions

Monday, August 26, 2013

WAMU

In Virginia, a major transportation project goes nowhere unless it receives the support of the Commonwealth Transportation Board. This influential, 17-member panel picks the winners from the state’s long wish list of road improvement projects. Yet, few of the members are known to the general public, and most do not have transportation or urban planning backgrounds. Most of these key transportation decision makers come from the real estate or banking sectors. 

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Transportation Nation

D.C. Considering Lifting Mandatory Parking Minimums

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

(photo by vpickering via flickr)

The District of Columbia’s Office of Planning is considering a proposal to potentially squeeze the supply of available parking spaces in some neighborhoods as new development attracts more residents and jobs. If successful, it will mark the first major change to the city's zoning code since it was first adopted in 1958.

It's part of a growing city attempt to reduce congestion by offering its residents alternatives to the automobile – from bikes to buses to making walking more attractive.

Planning officials may submit to the zoning commission this spring a proposal to eliminate the mandatory parking space minimums required in new development in transit-rich corridors and in downtown Washington.  The idea squares with the vision of making the district less car-dependent and would let developers decide how many parking spaces are necessary based on market demand.  However, opponents say the plan denies the reality that roughly 70 percent of Washington-area commuters drive and removing off-street parking requirements in apartment and office buildings would force motorists to circle city blocks looking for scarce spaces.

“This is a very dangerous proposal.  We think it threatens the future of Washington, D.C.,” says Lon Anderson, the chief spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, which represents motorists and advocates road construction as a solution for traffic congestion.

A city where a car isn’t a necessity

Thirty-nine percent of D.C. households are car-free. In some neighborhoods with access to public transit, more than 80 percent of households are car-free.  Some recent developments wound up building too much parking to adhere to the mandatory minimums, including the D.C. USA shopping center in Columbia Heights, which is right next to a Metro station and busy bus corridor.

“The parking garage there is probably as twice as big as it needs to be, and the second level is basically not used so the city has had to scramble to find another use for it,” says Cheryl Cort, the policy director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth and advocate of the zoning change.

“Rather than having the government tell the private sector how many parking spaces to build, we think it’s better for the developer to figure out how it best wants to market those units," Cort added.

Developers favor eliminating the mandatory parking minimums because the construction of parking garages, especially underground, is enormously expensive.  Each underground space adds $40,000 to $70,000 to a project’s cost, according to Harriet Tregoning, the director of D.C.’s Office of Planning, who is working on the overhaul of D.C.’s zoning code. The code was last updated in 1958 when planners assumed the automobile would remain the mainstay of individual transportation.

“No matter how much mandatory parking we require in new buildings, if the landlord is going to charge you $200 per month to park in the building and the city is going to let you park on the street for $35 per year, you may very well decide… to park on the street,” Tregoning says. “Many developers are finding they have parking that they can’t get rid of, that they don’t know what to do with.  That’s really a stranded asset.”

Parking-free building coming to Tenleytown

On the corner of Wisconsin Avenue NW and Brandywine Street NW stands what used to be a billiards hall. The property, just a block from the Tenleytown Metro station, has been an eyesore for years. Douglas Development is expected to redevelop the site this year, turning it into a mixed-use retail and residential space with 40 apartment units and no on-site parking.

“When the Zoning Commission looked at this site and DDOT did some analysis, they found a lot of availability of both on-street parking and off-street parking.  There are actually hundreds of parking spaces around this Metro station that go dark at night,” says Cheryl Cort, whose group contends the construction of parking spaces drives up housing costs an average 12.5 percent per unit. If developers can't find a market for those parking spaces, they pass the costs onto tenants.

Douglas Development, which declined to comment on this story, received an exemption from the zoning commission to avoid the parking minimum at the Tenleytown property. Situated close to Metro and planning to market the apartments to car-free residents, the developers escaped having to build 20 spaces under the current regulations in the zone (C-2-A).

Douglas’s plan may look sensible given the conditions in the neighborhood, but AAA’s Anderson says it will cause problems.

“Are you going to have any visitors who might drive there to visit you?  How about your mom and dad, are they going to be coming in? Do they live locally or are they going to be driving in? If so, where are they going to park?” says Anderson, who says the past three years have seen 16,000 new car registrations in Washington.

Fewer cars in D.C.’s future?

In its fight against the parking policy change, AAA is being joined by community activists who claim their neighborhoods will be clogged by drivers looking for parking. Sue Hemberger, a 28-year district resident who does not own a car, says Tregoning’s proposal is too harsh. In her view, district officials are making car ownership a hassle.

“What I see us doing in the name of transit-oriented development is pushing people who won’t forgo car ownership off the edge of the transit grid,” Hemberger says. “I’m worried about the future of certain neighborhoods and I’m worried about the future of downtown.”

Anderson says D.C. is waging a “war on cars,” but Tregoning says changes to zoning regulations are not designed to make motorists’ lives miserable.  On the contrary, the planning director anticipates the number of drivers in the district will grow but they will have enough options to do away with car ownership, like the car sharing services of Zipcar and Car2Go.

“How does your walking, biking, or taking transit affect his ability to drive, accept to make it easier?” Tregoning says in response to Anderson. “The national average household spends 19 percent of income on transportation. In the district, in areas well-served by transit, our number is more like 9 percent of household income. So we happen to think lots of choices are a good thing.”

In 2012 the city of Portland, Oregon, commissioned a study to look at the relationship between car ownership and new development, after apartment construction with little to no on-site parking in the city’s inner neighborhoods raised concerns about the potential for on-street parking congestion.

The study found “that 64 percent of residents are getting to work via a non-single-occupant vehicle. Almost a third (28 percent) of those surveyed belong to car-free households; however, cars are still the preferred mode of travel for many of the survey respondents.”

About two-thirds of the vehicle owners surveyed in Portland’s inner neighborhoods “park on the street without a permit and have to walk less than two minutes to reach their place of residence, and they spend only five minutes or less searching for a parking spot,” the study found.

To Hemberger, the Portland study’s key finding is that people don't give up car ownership just because they commute to work via public transit.  In a city like Washington, Hemberger says, there will not be enough street spot to accommodate new, car-owning residents.

Decision could come this spring

The Office of Planning will submit the proposed removal of parking minimums to the Zoning Commission later this month or early April, where it will go through the public process again before a final decision is made.

“We are a really unique city because we have an amazing number of transportation choices. Our citizens end up paying a lot less for transportation than the rest of the region,” Tregoning says. “I don’t understand why that would be considered a war on cars to try to give people choices, the very choices that actually take automobiles off the road to make it easier to park, to make it easier to drive with less congestion.”

Follow @MartinDiCaro on Twitter.

 

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Transportation Nation

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

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

(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.

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Transportation Nation

Gentrification and Transportation in Washington: Part II of a Special Report

Monday, September 17, 2012

A Caoital Bikeshare station in DC's Deanwood neighborhood (photo by Martin DiCaro)

This is the second of a two-part series on the relationship between gentrification and access to transit in Washington D.C.'s rapidly changing neighborhoods. Part 2 examines the Deanwood and Kenilworth neighborhoods in Ward 7. Part 1 examined the Shaw and Pleasant Plains neighborhoods in the Georgia Avenue corridor in Ward 1.

Despite the presence of three Metro stations -- four when counting the station just over the border in Prince George's County -- redevelopment has been slow to take hold in D.C.'s Ward 7. If you take the train east of the Anacostia River and arrive at the Minnesota Avenue Metro station in the Deanwood area, you will arrive in what looks like a different city in one significant respect: while other parts of Washington are exploding with new high-rise apartment buildings and retail space, this neighborhood is only starting to grow.

"We still like the small-town feel of this area, and we have an older population," says Dennis Chestnut, 62. He runs the grassroots community group Groundwork Anacostia. "We like to retain a little bit of that as the growth takes place, so I think that very rapid growth has its drawbacks."

"When you look at this Metro station and all of the space that is available here, there is opportunity here for Metro and transit-oriented retail that could support the community in a lot of ways," Chestnut added.

That section of the city has remained underserved for decades, and developers are now beginning to take advantage of what is fertile ground for real estate projects. At the very busy intersection of Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road, ground has been broken on the Park 7 development, a $67 million mixed-use real estate project that will include 20,000 square feet of new retail space and mostly affordable rental housing among its 370 apartment units, a key to protecting existing residents from rising property values as gentrification takes root.

"The people who are most vulnerable are renters because their rents can keep going up," says Cheryl Cort, the policy director at the Coalition for Smarter Growth. "D.C. does have a moderate rent-control law for older buildings, but there are ways for building owners to get around that, so renters are most vulnerable to rising prices."

In July, about 100 affordable housing units for residents 55 and older opened at Victory Square on Barnes Street NE, a component of the ward's Parkside master plan. Tenants with moderate incomes will pay rents ranging from $775 to $960, according to a statement by the Banc of America Community Development Corporation.

There are at least seven major real estate projects in Ward 7 receiving city subsidies.

New transit and gentrification

Coming changes could cause unintended consequences for the ward's poorest residents. A plan to extend the H Street/Benning Road streetcar line east of the Anacostia River is under consideration. A study by the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University found that neighborhoods that get new rail transit systems like streetcars experience a significant increase in housing prices. In some places, renters and low-income households have been priced out.

"A streetcar or light rail can lead to gentrification here," says Peter Tatian, a senior researcher at the Urban Institute. "It has in other places. It brings investment into a community and new people who are attracted by the new transportation. What the city needs to do is think about how it can take advantage of the benefits of light rail as well as mitigating the negatives that might exist, particularly for renters."

While many residents may welcome the streetcar line, Octaviah Holt, a 21-year-old professional, has her doubts about whom it will benefit.

"Who would put a trolley in this neighborhood?" says Holt. "I don't feel as though there is a lot of crime, but a lot of people wouldn't want to ride a trolley, the people that I know. I feel as though it's not for us, the people in the neighborhood. It's meant for the newcomers."

The perception that Ward 7 is not a place where developers want to build or people want to move is fading, according to Tatian.

"People who come out here will see the changes, but the problem is getting the people to come out here in the first place," he says. "There is still this perception that this is not a good place to be, but that is starting to change slowly."

New pedestrian bridge over I-295

One can get a bird's eye view of the traffic roaring by on Route 295 by standing on the old, narrow, poorly lit pedestrian bridge connecting Deanwood to Kenilworth. The latter neighborhood has been isolated from its neighbors since the highway was built through here, Chestnut says.

"This bridge is the only connection for this community to Minnesota Avenue and the Metro," he says. Now that Kenilworth is starting to grow, a new pedestrian bridge will be necessary to accommodate increased foot traffic.

"This pedestrian bridge was built a while ago, and it is time for it to be rebuilt," says Cheryl Cort. "It doesn't feel like a very safe place. We talk to residents and there's a tendency to use it during the daylight hours and take the bus home at night. The new pedestrian bridge will be designed to be a much safer place. It will deter crime."

Preparing for change

Whether the neighborhood Dennis Chestnut has called home his entire life can avoid the negative consequences of gentrification remains to be seen. The addition of affordable housing units amid new apartment buildings will certainly help. He says the late development of Deanwood has also turned out to be "a blessing."

"It wound up being a blessing in disguise for this particular area because of how rapidly it happened in some of the other areas," he says. "On the east side of the city, Ward 8 was one example of how rapidly it took place there. It has allowed the residents here in Ward 7 to witness that and to prepare to some extent. This is where the local engagement has been very important to get involved with the process."

Resident O'Neal Odom, 70, who has lived in the ward for 40 years, welcomes the expected transformation as major real estate projects are realized.

"We're finally starting to get some services," he says. "You know, streets fixed, getting stores, we are getting government. It's becoming a better place to live. I have no problem with gentrification. It's going to change like that anyway. Once they start building new houses and new things like that, people will stop being afraid of us."

For more on how gentrification has affected DC residents, listen to the TN documentary "Back of the Bus: Mass Transit, Race and Inequality."

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Transportation Nation

What's the Best Way to Build New Highways: Private? Public? Tolls? Magic?

Friday, August 03, 2012

(Washington, D.C. -- WAMU) As the opening of the Interstate 495 Express Lanes on northern Virginia's Capital Beltway draws closer, backers of the $2 billion project say they cannot guarantee the four new HOT lanes will achieve the goal of reducing traffic congestion while simultaneously returning a profit for their private sector operator.

The admission is noteworthy because there was enormous investment made by a private entity. The tolls revenues that are supposed to supply its profit are off limits to the state of Virginia for the next seven decades.

The HOT (high occupancy toll) lanes will run next to the Beltway's non-toll lanes between the Dulles Toll Road and I-95 in Springfield, Va., one of the most heavily traveled corridors in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan region. The project is the result of a public-private partnership between the state of Virginia and Fluor-Transurban, a company that has built similar facilities in the United States and abroad.

In the deal, the state received four new lanes of traffic capacity, a repaving of the Beltway, and a fully electronic toll facility for individual commuters and HOV-3 carpoolers. Transurban gets the toll revenues for the next 75 years, but company officials say they may not turn a profit at all.

"The private sector is responsible for paying back the debt and paying to operate and maintain the lanes," said Jennifer Aument, a Transurban spokeswoman, at a recent press conference to promote the new E-ZPass Flex device that will be necessary for HOT lanes carpoolers to have.

Transurban provided about 75 percent of the capital necessary to build the new lanes and toll gantries. Public money was necessary to cover about one-fourth of the costs and finalize the partnership because projected toll revenues were not sufficient for Transurban to finance the entire project itself.

HOT lane popularity has been mixed in other cities. Houston is currently considering additional promotion and advertising to get more drivers using new HOT lanes that are under capacity.

"If the traffic doesn't come and we can't generate the revenue, we are taking the risk on this project," Aument said of the Virginia plan. "But we believe because the 495 Express Lanes will provide a faster, more reliable trip which is much needed in this great region, it will be a success for us, for VDOT, and for travelers."

Not your normal toll road

The idea behind the 495 Express Lanes is not that commuters will use them every day; commuters are expected to pay the potentially pricey toll on days when they need the reliability and predictability that a congestion-free highway would present.

The tolling will be dynamically priced; the more commuters that use the toll lanes at a given time during the day the higher the toll will be. Raising the toll during peak travel periods will prevent the new lanes from getting congested, as is usually the case during rush hour in the adjacent non-toll lanes.

Carpoolers may use the HOT lanes for free as long there are at least three occupants in the vehicle. If carpooling is too successful, Virginia taxpayers will wind up subsidizing some HOV-3 trips.

The contract between Virginia and Transurban requires the state to pay subsidies if the number of carpoolers reaches at least 24 percent "of the total flow of all [vehicles] that are... going in the same direction for the first 30 consecutive minutes during any day... during which average traffic for [the toll lanes] going in the same direction exceeds a rate of 3,200 vehicles per hour..."

During peak travel times -- if carpoolers make up about one-fourth of all vehicles in the HOT lanes -- the state will have to pay Transurban 70 percent of the lost toll per vehicle. Both VDOT and Transurban are downplaying the possibility that taxpayers will have to subsidize carpoolers.

"Is there a back stop? The answer to that is yes. Do we think we will get there? The answer to that is no. And if we do, we still consider that a success," says Charlie Kilpatrick, VDOT's chief deputy commissioner. "That's a success story because we would have such a great usage in HOV, much further beyond what we ever imagined."

"Carpooling could expand by more than 10 times on the Beltway before this provision would go into effect," says Aument, who says the subsidy will not be paid if Transurban clears a certain profit on toll revenue, about 12 percent. "It's there as a stop-gap in the extraordinary circumstance that there are so many carpoolers that we can't collect enough toll revenue to operate and maintain the road."

Public-private partnerships are the future

Without the capital of Transurban the 495 Express Lanes would have remained just an idea. To build the $2 billion road, however, the state agreed to Transurban receiving the toll revenues for the next 75 years, even though the company hopes to have paid off its project debt in 30 years.

"It is frankly unrealistic to believe that there are sufficient public funds for these enormous projects in Virginia," says Kilpatrick.

Virginia has been one of the most active states in the country in signing public-private partnerships, according to Emil Frankel, a visiting scholar at the D.C.-based Bipartisan Policy Center and former assistant secretary of transportation policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation.

"The private sector is putting a lot of money into this only with the assurance that they will get a return on their investment to service the debt that they have incurred to construct it," Frankel says. "So the public had to give up something to get this built."

"If you like the Beltway the way it is and you don't want anything built at all, then it's a bad deal," says Frankel. "Most of the residents of Virginia wanted this increased capacity. By taking some of the traffic off the free lanes, it should improve the flow of traffic on the free lanes as well." Express buses will also have access to the HOT lanes.

Private entities take the risk

Some private highway ventures have not gone as planned. The Pocahontas Parkway near Richmond, an 8.8-mile tolled freeway between the junction of I-95 and VA-150, has yet to meet traffic projections and may have to go through another financial restructuring. The Dulles Greenway saw its finances restructured for the first time in 1999 after projected levels of traffic and tolls didn't materialize. Frankel expects 495 to be more successful than the aforementioned toll roads because the HOT lanes were built directly adjacent to congested travel lanes.

"You are getting increased capacity on a crowded, unreliable facility," says Frankel, who says the 91 Express Lanes, which run for 10 miles in southern California, are an example of a successful dynamic tolling and HOV-3 system.

Better options?

Smart growth advocates are unhappy with the deal the state received in losing access to toll revenues for 75 years, and argue that VDOT should have considered alternatives to Beltway expansion.

"I think we should be looking at all alternatives upfront, and look more objectively at transit and transit-oriented development and lower cost approaches," says Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. "We should look at public ownership of the toll lanes so we have access to those revenues in the future."

"VDOT rejected at the earliest stages a transit alternative for this corridor. They were prevailed upon to do another transit study, but they promptly put it on a shelf. They never took seriously a transit-oriented development for this corridor," says Schwartz, who says Virginia could have considered something similar to the Purple Line, a proposed 16-mile light rail line that will extend from Bethesda to New Carrollton.

"Our concern is the rush to do these public-private deals has been reducing the consideration of alternatives in project corridors," Schwartz adds. In his estimation, if the new lanes on 495 eventually attract more commuters, congestion could increase on secondary roads when those added vehicles ultimately exit the highway.

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Transportation Nation

A Third Battle of Manassas? Virginia Proposes New Highway Near Civil War Battlefield

Friday, July 27, 2012

Virginia transportation officials are drawing closer to an agreement with the National Park Service as part of a plan to build a major four-lane divided highway connecting Route 7 in Loudoun County to Interstate-66 in Prince William County, what opponents charge will be the first piece of an outer beltway in northern Virginia.

Just as Confederates and Yankees 150 years ago both claimed to be fighting for freedom, the two sides today both claim they are fighting for the same thing: the future of Manassas, and better transportation in northern Virginia. There are no Stonewall Jacksons or heroic stands on Chinn Ridge this time around, but the outcome of this battle will bring lasting changes to historic ground nonetheless.

You can listen to an audio version of this story here.

Negotiations with the Park Service involve a proposal to build the new road along the western edge of Manassas National Battlefield Park in exchange for closing -- except to visitors -- the two heavily traveled roads (Routes 234 and 29) that currently crisscross the park.

The new bi-county parkway would pave over 12 acres of the Manassas historic district and four acres of actual battlefield land on the periphery of the property away from where most of the fighting occurred during the Second Battle of Manassas from August 28-20, 1862. As the 150th anniversary of that key Confederate victory approaches, opponents say the new road will create more sprawl and development, turning the hallowed ground into a "median strip."

"Imagine the precedent," says Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. "The Park Service would potentially be agreeing that highway agencies can take historic battlefield land or other park land for other highway projects."

Schwartz says plans to build major highways in northern Virginia have been pushed for decades. In the late 1980s, a study that examined the possible construction of a Washington Bypass west of the capital was rejected by the governors of Virginia and Maryland.

"Very clearly they are putting together the pieces of a circumferential highway in northern Virginia, and they've pressed Maryland for bridge crossings," Schwartz says.

Manassas Park superintendent supports the plan

"It becomes a balancing act between what you are giving up and what you are gaining," says Ed Clark, the superintendent of Manassas National Battlefield Park.

For giving up a few acres out of seven square miles of battlefield ground, the National Park Service hopes to gain a better experience for tourists.

The Commonwealth Transportation Board understands that the National Park Service will not agree to a new highway along the Manassas battlefield's western edge unless Routes 234 and 29 are closed through the park, Clark says.

"The road we are primarily interested in is the Manassas Battlefield Bypass," he says, referring to a separate project that would circle the western and northern park boundaries, overlapping a future north-south highway along the battlefield's western side.

"It would enable us to remove all of the [park] traffic, as most folks in northern Virginia are aware how serious the traffic is along the I-66 corridor," Clark says. "That traffic does detract significantly from the battlefield experience from this hallowed ground."

A Battle over growth

While opponents believe a new highway from Loudoun to Prince William County will open up new lands for development, supporters, including Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton, say anyone who looks at Google Earth can see that residential growth is already crowding the Manassas battlefield.

In Connaughton's view, a four-lane divided highway would serve several purposes. "Prince William and Loudoun Counties are two of the fastest growing jurisdictions in the country," he says. "We are trying to make better connectivity between the counties to deal with current and future population growth, and to also open up the commercial development area on the back side of Loudoun County."

Virginia is also working with the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority to establish Dulles Airport as a cargo hub, which new road infrastructure would help facilitate.

"When you put all these together, it makes sense for the state to move forward and try to make this thing a reality," Connaughton says. "It's been on the books for a very, very long time. It's not an outer beltway."

"I really encourage folks to go on Google satellite and see that this isn't about opening up areas for future growth. Look at the map. Look at the reality of what is there today. The growth is there."

Better options?

Smart growth advocates say there are better ways to deal with current growth and traffic congestion. The proposed highway is not the answer. "You could wind up with the worst of all worlds, which is a new highway, more development sparked on the western and northern boundaries of Manassas battlefield, more traffic, and political pressure to never close the roads through the park," Schwartz says.

Developers are pushing for more roads in order to lobby for zoning changes that would clear the way for more homes and commercial properties to be built in Loudoun and Prince William Counties, Schwartz says.

As evidence, Schwartz points to a February 2011 meeting of the Virginia Commonwealth Transportation Board. Board member and developer Gary Garzinski made clear his intention to seek a major north-south connection "from 95 or 234 extended up to a corridor, up to and including Route 50... that would extend Route 234 to Route 50 to join what is called the Dulles Loop that gives access to Dulles Airport to more people from the south," according to a transcription of the board meeting.

In a letter to the Transportation Planning Board of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments in February, smart growth advocates proposed several alternative solutions to address east-west traffic congestion in northern Virginia.

The proposals included "improving I-66, including the extension of HOV and bus lanes; funding and expanding the capacity of the Gainesville Interchange... co-locating Route 29 onto the improved I-66 to allow Route 29 to be closed through the Battlefield; upgrading Pageland Road west of the Battlefield with shoulders, roundabouts at intersections, and turn lanes..."

"Bi-County Parkway" moving forward

The state's environmental impact study of the new highway is expected by the end of the year. A deal with the National Park Service about the location of the road along the western edge of the battlefield is expected this summer.

The project should have been completed years ago, Connaughton says.

"Because of bad policies and bad decisions in the past, we've ended up with residential development and not the transportation infrastructure we need to support it," he says.

 

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Transportation Nation

Old Plans, Current Debate: Would A Second Beltway Work Today?

Friday, April 08, 2011

Beltway

This map from the early 1960s shows all the highways planned for construction by the end of the century. Some were actually built. Others, like the second Beltway, weren't.

(Washington D.C. - David Schultz, WAMU) The idea of a second Beltway -- a circular highway in Virginia and Maryland,  is sort of mythical now, but back in the 1960s, it was a reality. An official map from back then shows the highways that regional planners thought would be finished by the year 2000. A bright, red line forms a concentric circle around the Beltway -- the first Beltway, that is. This red line goes around or, in some cases, directly through the towns of Mount Vernon, Fairfax and Herndon in Virginia and then Rockville, Bowie and Upper Marlboro in Maryland.

Stewart Schwartz is the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, a local nonprofit group opposed to sprawling development. Schwartz says a second Beltway would have made our outer suburbs look very different than they do today.

"You would see what typically follows highways -- especially at interchanges -- is development. And you'd have hotels and gas stations and strip malls along these areas," he says.

The second Beltway does not exist, despite its presence on the 50-year-old maps of the future. Funding for the highway was just never there.

Still, not everyone thought it was a bad idea. In fact, there are still some folks out there who think a second Beltway could actually work.

Bob Chase, president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, leads a pro-business advocacy group that seeks to steer more funding to roads and highways in the Commonwealth.

"The reason the existing Beltway is so crowded is because we have not constructed alternatives and we are forcing an inordinate amount of traffic onto a very limited facility," he says.

To be sure, many transit activists say more trains and buses would accomplish the same goal.

Chase says the politicians that killed the second Beltway did so in the name of slowing growth. But, he says, that growth happened anyway. Now there aren't enough roads to accommodate it.

"Two-thirds of your population is outside the Capital Beltway and in the future an even higher percentage is out there. And right now, there's no way to move people between Maryland and Virginia other than the Beltway," he says.

Chase doesn't just want a second Beltway, though. He thinks the region also needs a third.

In fact, the regional planners of the '60s agreed with him. A third Beltway is also on their maps. It would've gone west of Dulles Airport in Loudoun County, then down past the Manassas Battlefield and across the Potomac River into Charles County, Md. Beyond that well, the planners didn't really get that far.

Today, the mere idea of a third Beltway is a political nonstarter. And that, Chase says, is what's wrong with the modern day political process.

"Transportation policy is responding too much to small groups, small neighborhoods, small situations and ignoring the big picture. And that's why we have the nation's worst congestion," he says.

Right now, though, and off into the foreseeable future, we're stuck with the one Beltway we already have. But the idea of multiple concentric circles isn't just theoretical. After all Baltimore has a Beltway, Atlanta has a Beltway, Houston actually has two.

And Schwartz, the anti-sprawl advocate, says he'll take D.C. over any of them: "We have been much more successful as a region because: a.) We've protected our greenspace; b.) Because we've revived our city; and c.) Because we've tied it all to a transit system," he says.

Perhaps it's just as well. Because once you build a third Beltway, you'd probably need to build another one...and another one...and another one. And really at that point, who can keep track?

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Note: This story was originally written for broadcast on WAMU in Washington. To listen to the audio version, visit WAMU.org.

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