Outer Beltway lobbyists will say and do anything to unlock new land for sprawl in Northern Virginia’s rural areas. The latest bizarre claim comes from the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, whose email alert this week bore the title, “Save the Planet. Expand the Highway Network.”

Sometimes, you just can’t make this stuff up.

NVTA claims that a Fairfax County energy task force recommended a massive highway-expansion program as the solution to energy issues, and suggests that the county Board of Supervisors endorsed the idea.

There are only at least 3 problems with this: That’s not what the task force report says, the statement NVTA quotes isn’t even one of the recommendations, and the board didn’t endorse anything about road expansion. Not to mention it’s a terrible idea.

Highway-building won’t save the planet

NVTA has been pushing for an Outer Beltway through the rural piedmont for decades, and apparently believes we should widen every other highway ad infinitum. Landowners at the edges of the developed region fund NVTA, and the edge highways they constantly lobby for will open up opportunities to create large subdivisions of single-family homes (exactly the types of housing in the locations the region doesn’t need right now).

That certainly won’t decrease congestion in the medium or long term, though. It will probably increase it, because thousands more commuters will then joint the predominantly east-west commuter routes to jobs.

Even if it does reduce congestion for a short while, that doesn’t save the planet one bit. A review by Portland State University found congestion reduction programs often don’t reduce emissions. While cars do pollute less when not in traffic, any congestion reduction also entices people to drive more, adding new emissions as well.

Transportation made up 36% of Fairfax’s energy use in 2006.  The national report “Growing Cooler,” by Smart Growth America and the Center for Clean Air Policy, and “Cool Communities” by the Coalition for Smarter Growth in the DC region, demonstrate convincingly that smart growth and transit-oriented development are the best tools to reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector. The compact development of smart growth also contributes to better building energy efficiency as well.

NVTA alert warps reality

NVTA’s “Save the Planet. Expand the Highway Network” alert cites Fairfax County’s Private Sector Energy Task Force, which, it claims, concluded:

Due to the need for transit to use highways and the need for most trips in the County to continue to use individual vehicles, a highway program to eliminate or at least drastically reduce congestion, provides the county with the largest opportunity for transportation energy reduction in the short and medium-term.

The NVTA alert also notes that “The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors recently endorsed unanimously its Private Sector Energy Task Force’s recommendations.” That certainly implies the board endorsed the above statement.

Besides the fact that the recommendation is dead wrong, NVTA is misleading on several fronts. This isn’t really a recommendation of the task force at all, the county board certainly did not endorse this statement, and the report doesn’t really only recommend highways as the solution to all problems.

The statement that the county should fix congestion with indiscriminate road-building appears nowhere in the task force’s presentation to the Board of Supervisors or its formal recommendations. It does appear in a long document of “supporting material” which makes a very large number of different and sometimes conflicting suggestions.

Fairfax supervisors don’t agree with highway agenda; neither did the task force

At Fairfax County’s annual Revitalization Conference on October 22, Fairfax Chairman Sharon Bulova offered a very different vision than the one NVTA claims to ascribe to her. Stewart Schwartz of the Coalition for Smarter Growth attended, and reports that Chairman Bulova opened the conference with a strong statement that the county must focus addressing traffic congestion through land use policy, in particular by revitalizing and redeveloping its old commercial corridors.

The task force’s membership happens to include people like Lon Anderson from AAA Mid-Atlantic, and Leo Schefer of the Washington Airports Task Force, who has long lobbied for the Outer Beltway. It’s little surprise that a long list of supporting information from a task force containing professional road lobbyists and longtime road boosters includes a few road lobbyist statements. It also contains a great many recommendations that contradict the wider-roads-everywhere agenda.

Even in the congestion section, the supporting information document’s long list of suggestions includes making it easier for people within 1 mile of rail stations to reach transit, and using road elements like roundabouts to improve flow without widening roads. The document advocates for tax credits and parking incentives for fuel-efficient vehicles, and encouraging more children to bicycle to school.

It’s actually more telling that the task force demurred from endorsing the bad idea of focusing on expanding capacity to reduce energy use. Instead, there’s a very vague recommendation asking the board to “review the transportation report”  and possibly convey some findings to the Council of Governments.

Besides, the task force wasn’t supposed to be about country transportation policy. A Fairfax County official said the goal was to find ways the private sector could help improve energy efficiency within the private sphere. It wasn’t a transportation panel and its charge was never to try to set the county’s priorities on transportation.

But for the people in Northern Virginia who single-mindedly pursue the Outer Beltway year in and year out, any task force seems to be an opportunity to push their same ideas. The Board of Supervisors should be cautious about these task forces or permanent panels, like the task force’s suggestion to create a Public-Private Energy Alliance, if some members constantly try to hijack such forums to serve their own transportation and development ends.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Surface Transit. 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.