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Modern Mobility: Regional Bodies Can Have a Big Impact

Modern Mobility is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Two regional governmental bodies, that don’t receive much detailed coverage in the press, could have a big impact on the transportation options available to you, the quality of the air you breathe and our ability to meet our climate goals.

Have you heard of the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board (TPB)?  Or the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA)?

The Transportation Policy Board (TPB)

The TPB is the DC area’s Metropolitan Planning Organization and it is supposed to do transportation planning for the entire DC-area – including all regionally-significant transportation projects in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs as well as DC itself. By federal law it is responsible for ensuring that those projects improve the area’s air quality.

TPB has some great “aspirational goals” that could really lead the region into a healthier, more sustainable transportation future:

  1. Bring jobs and housing closer together
  2. Expand bus rapid transit and transitways
  3. Move more people on Metrorail
  4. Increase telecommuting and other options for commuting
  5. Expand the express highway network
  6. Improve walk and bike access to transit
  7. Complete the National Capital Trail

The chair of the Metropolitan Washington Air Quality Commission’s comments on the current transportation plan note that it is critical for the region to reduce per capita vehicle miles travelled (VMT) in order to achieve air quality standards and implores TPB to invest in “Metro, ride-sharing, pedestrian and bike infrastructure, and other travel demand management strategies to continue to mitigate future growth in vehicle emissions.”

Unfortunately, when the rubber meets the road – in this case, when it comes time to put together its “constrained long-range plan” of all regionally-significant transportation projects, the TPB seems content to basically staple together MDOT’s, VDOT’s and DDOT’s transportation plans, without significant examination of whether any given project moves the region forward toward those “aspirational goals” or prepare us for future, cleaner air quality standards.

A good example here is Maryland’s reconstruction of the “Nice” bridge across the Potomac south of DC. Maryland’s DOT was looking to drop plans for a promised bicycle and pedestrian accommodation on the replacement bridge (which will double capacity for cars) the TPB passed an amendment to the regional plan allowing the project to move forward with no dedicated space for non-motorized traffic on this important river crossing which has no alternative for miles in any direction. Another is their acceptance of Maryland’s I-495 and I-270 Express Lane projects without any commitment that they will allow High Occupancy Vehicles to travel toll-free.

TPB will be updating their regional plan “Visualize 2045” over the course of the next two years. You can sign-up for email updates here.

The Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA)

The NVTA gets 70% of the regional tax revenue that is dedicated to transportation (from a wholesale tax on gasoline, along with some other sources). It then doles that money back out as grants for transportation projects.

The NVTA, laudably, scores those projects on a standard, largely quantitative rubric and uses that score to inform which projects are most worthy of funding while also trying to balance things so that each jurisdiction gets their fair share of “benefit” from the regional projects.

By law, the NVTA must “give priority to projects that most effectively reduce congestion” but is expressly allowed to consider other criteria. The Authority’s heavy weighting of congestion reduction, combined with its failure to account for transportation improvements effect on future land use and induced demand mean the NVTA has funneled an extraordinary amount of money into highway widenings since its creation. These highway widening will inevitably lead to more sprawl, destruction of tree canopy and additional driving, erasing any alleged congestion-reduction within a few years of construction. It also means safety-focused projects rarely make the cut for funding and is likely why many VDOT safety projects have a tendency to turn into widening projects.

The NVTA is kicking-off an update to their regional transportation plan as well. You can sign-up for updates here. You can also pre-register now to speak virtually at their January 14 authority meeting. Perhaps you want to tell them to account for induced demand in their modeling, perhaps to place more of a focus on vehicle miles traveled, perhaps just to focus on public transit investments or active transportation infrastructure like trails.

If they don’t hear from you, you can just expect more of the same.

Chris Slatt is the current Chair of the Arlington County Transportation Commission, founder of Sustainable Mobility for Arlington County and a former civic association president. He is a software developer, co-owner of Perfect Pointe Dance Studio, and a father of two.

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