Photo by wyfurasko.

Here is the audio of Congressman Jim Moran’s appearance on WTOP on Friday, where he complained about DC not being willing to widen the 14th Street bridge and 14th Street itself.

First, starting at 38:03, Moran spends considerable time criticizing the BRAC policy, which will take thousands of defense workers out of perfectly functional office buildings near Metro and relocate them to defense bases like Ft. Belvoir, where there is virtually no transit and the roads can’t handle all of the workers driving. Moran is trying to get DOD to help pay for road improvements, but more than that he’d like to persuade them to reverse the policy of moving everyone and keep jobs near Metro. Good for him.

At 47:20, the discussion turns to HOT lanes and Arlington’s recent lawsuit against VDOT and FHWA. Moran says of the lanes:

On paper, they make sense, but I can understand Arlington’s concern it’s going to lead to more congestion. The easier you make it for people to drive the less likely they are to find alternative public trans and ultimately we don’t have enough land to lay more asphalt. We have got to put our priority on public transit. That’s where the money needs to be, that’s where the policy planning needs to be directed.

I’m sympathetic to what Arlington is doing but I think the state is ultimately going to prevail. ... We are not putting enough money into public transit which is where it should be going.

That’s a good sentiment. Building more freeway lanes just drives more sprawl and more auto-dependent commuting. Meanwhile, there are plenty of underutilized Metro stations in Fairfax County and lots of development potential on the future Silver Line. Virginia needs to steer its growth there instead of paving the rest of Arlington.

But while Moran seems to understand that more paving isn’t the answer in principle, he doesn’t connect the dots to actual policies. He continues:

As much as the state of Virginia will put into expanding access to the DC bridges, DC is not cooperating. So you get to those bridges and you’re going to have just as much of a backup. A lot of the problem is you need extra lanes on the 14th Street bridge and on some of these other bridges ... And 14th Street needs to be widened.

If DC would listen, they could get some revenue that would go into their transportation needs, because they can get some of the money that you get from these HOT lanes. People pay extra to be able to use HOT lanes, to be able to drive by themselves. And of course that goes against all of our policy, but it’s a compromise, just like the lottery is a compromise way to pay for education. This is a compromise way to pay for transportation. But once they get to DC it stops. What DC should do is to widen 14th street bridge, widen 14th street and get some of the revenue that’s coming from these HOT lanes. We’ve suggested it time and again and they just won’t listen or let alone act on it.

Widen 14th how? Image

from Google Maps.

First off, Moran is buying the HOT lane boosters’ arguments that these lanes will generate piles of money for Virginia to spend on public transportation. There’s no evidence that is the case. HOT lane projects that add more lanes don’t even pay for the cost of their own construction. As far as we can tell from Maryland SHA’s estimates on 270, the HOT lane tolls might not even pay for the cost of running the tollbooths.

We won’t know for sure how good or bad an economic deal the HOT lanes are until the Beltway lanes open. But based on other cities’ experience, even if the HOT lane generates a lot of money, that will at best just cover the cost of building the lanes in the first place. Widening a freeway to create HOT lanes isn’t a way to use one profitable but perhaps undesirable activity (like the lottery) to pay for something else (like education). It’s either just a way to make building more lanes a little cheaper, or just a way to sell more lanes to gullible politicians.

Finally, as we discussed yesterday, there’s no room for more lanes on 14th Street. 14th Street travels between large buildings (see right). What could Moran possibly be talking about?

What does make sense is allocating the existing lanes more efficiently. As BeyondDC pointed out, there are studies underway about building dedicated bus lanes from the 14th Street bridge up to the K Street transitway. 14th Street is seven lanes for most of that stretch. Even one bus-only lane in the peak direction would move a lot more people.

Tolling some or all of the existing lanes is also an option, and one that really would generate a lot of revenue without billions in costs. Of course, if DC proposed doing that, many Virginia leaders would be decrying a backdoor commuter tax, even though it’s not far from the plan Moran thinks DC isn’t listening to.

The 395 “HOV lanes” were originally bus-only lanes. Virginia needs simply to start charging for cars on those lanes and/or increase the HOV requirement to ensure that the lanes move efficiently, then connect them to bus-only or congestion priced lanes on 14th Street. Maybe Moran is the one who could benefit from some listening.

Update: I added a few words to clarify that the HOT lane projects which don’t pay for themselves are the ones that involve adding new HOT lanes, as opposed to changing existing lanes to HOT lanes. HOT lanes don’t raise enough to widen existing freeways. One California project made money, but that involved adding HOT lanes onto land that had been set aside from the start for the lanes. Other projects that converted existing lanes have made money as well, as Froggie pointed out. Neither is the case here.

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.