Rejected ‘60s freeway plan. Image from NVTA via WAMU.

WAMU’s Metro Connection aired a sadly one-sided story on Friday about long-debated, oft-rejected proposals to build an Outer Beltway across the Potomac, far from the region’s core. Positively, Metro Connection agreed that the piece wasn’t up to their standards, and the reporter has already added some of the missing side of the story.

The original piece only interviewed proponents of this destructive idea. While no voices from the smart growth or environmental perspectives appeared, Bob Chase, the professional booster for more freeways in rural Virginia, and AAA Mid-Atlantic’s Lon Anderson, spokesperson for one of America’s most polemical automobile association chapters, got considerable airtime.

The companion text article said, in the reporter’s voice, that drivers should blame traffic on a “failure” to build a 2nd and even 3rd Beltway, as suggested in the 1960s, and that discussion of the issue would be “encouraging to some transportation advocates and commuters”, parroting lines from Chase and Anderson.

Maryland officials explained that an outer Beltway isn’t a priority and conflicts with smart growth and environmental principles. But they were the only ones saying that in the original article. They got scant attention. The broadcast audio paraphrased a few objections, but in nearly every case followed up with a sentence beginning with “But,” implying that the arguments against the Outer Beltway deserve only rebuttal, not serious consideration.

The idea that arguments against the Outer Beltway are inconsequential is dangerously wrong. An Outer Beltway would primarily serve the large landowners in rural Virginia who want to fill their property with more cookie-cutter subdivisions. It actually won’t help current commuters. VDOT’s own 2004 study showed that 92% of drivers in the I-270 and Dulles corridors travel to and from the core, or along the current Beltway. An outer crossing wouldn’t serve them.

Even for those who could use an Outer Beltway, a free or subsidized road would just induce its own demand, spurring new development in current farmland and filling up the road with new drivers stuck in new congestion. A toll road would have to charge a lot of money to pay back its costs. AAA would subsequently whine, as they are doing with the ICC, that it’s too expensive and not enough people are using it.

The region needs better transit solutions between Bethesda and Tysons and the Metro lines in each corridor, not the failed Outer Beltway ideas of 50 years ago. The region has turned down these highways, over and over, because they simply won’t solve our transportation troubles.

AAA is not a neutral source

It’s not surprising that Bob Chase and AAA are still pushing an Outer Beltway as a transportation panacea, but it is disappointing when reporters fall for their pitch. Sadly, too many transportation reporters view AAA as some kind of neutral party.

AAA’s helpful press releases on gas price trends and holiday weekend traffic let reporters fill column space without doing a lot of work. There’s nothing wrong with those stories, but many reporters then fail to question when the organization’s press releases attack officials on policy grounds, like AAA’s broadsides against Mayor Gray’s traffic safety camera initiative, or Governor Martin O’Malley saying that an Outer Beltway is not the priority for Maryland.

Bob Chase has a high-powered, expensive PR firm, Dewey Square, pitching far and wide his aggressive push for more and more highway lanes at the region’s edge. Nonprofit advocates voicing alternative views, like the Coalition for Smarter Growth and Sierra Club, have to make do with much thinner resources. Good reporters put pitches from PR firms in their appropriate context and realize that they represent the interests of well-funded groups, not necessarily truth.

Unfortunately, we’ve seen several cases of journalists falling short on balanced coverage of late. WAMU stepped over the line recently with a brief morning story that only quoted AAA, and no pedestrian safety advocates, on traffic cameras. Reporter Armando Trull adapted an AP story which unquestioningly repeated the slant from The Washington Times.

AP reporters don’t sign their articles, so we don’t know who broadcast this biased story out on the wires without thinking. Besides WAMU, Fox5’s Will Thomas also rewrote the traffic camera story, and the Washington Business Journal aggregated it, both without questioning its one-sided premise.

There’s nothing wrong with opinion journalism—our articles are all opinions—but people know it. The Washington Times is mostly opinion, too, and so is anything from AAA, but many reporters and others mistake both. Running editorials on the Outer Beltway is one thing, but news reporters can and should stop regurgitating AAA’s line on policy questions, and should look more critically at other outlets’ stories when they don’t.

WAMU worked to fix its mistake

After getting an earful from myself and a number of environmental and smart growth advocates on Friday, WAMU agreed with the criticism. Metro Connection Editor Tara Boyle told me on the record, “In looking at story a second time, we think the critique that we needed a bit more balance is real, and there is merit to these critiques.”

The reporter, Martin Di Caro, spoke to Stewart Schwartz of CSG and myself, and added a section to both the audio and text versions with quotes from both of us. Di Caro has written many other, good-quality transportation stories in his 2 months at WAMU thus far, and I look forward to many more from him.

During our discussion, Di Caro mentioned that he’s currently working at WAMU thanks to a grant. Their former transportation reporter, David Schultz, was also only at WAMU for a short time. It’s terrific that WAMU is getting money to cover transportation issues, but it would be far better if they could rustle up more consistent funding to keep a single reporter more permanently. Transportation is not a trivial subject, and it’s very helpful to have reporters able to develop some expertise in the beat. When a reporter is new, they’re more likely to fall victim to AAA-itis or the related affliction, PR-rep-itis.

Meanwhile, WAMU deserves praise for looking at the story, recognizing that it was one-sided, and taking steps to do better with coverage now and in the future.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.