Photo by Shenghung Lin on Flickr.

Virginia road lobbyist Bob Chase claims that the only “balanced” funding for transportation is to give almost all of it to roads, primarily because most people drive. But he overlooks a simple fact: most people drive because we have under-invested in other modes for a long time. That’s no reason to keep it up.

Washington Post columnist Robert McCartney called last week for “a balanced approach” to traffic congestion, including transit investments and smart growth as well as new road construction (though he mostly seemed to want more highways).

Chase, who heads the Outer Beltway advocacy group the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, followed up with an action alert entitled “A balance of modes?” attacking regional transportation proprities for being about half roads and half transit, or not road-heavy enough for him.

Chase wrote:

According to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments most recent household survey, 81% of daily trips are made by auto, 9% by walking or bicycle, and 6% by public transit. (In Northern Virginia auto trip percentages are slightly higher; transit slightly less.)

The Northern Virginia Transportation Authority’s proposed $206.8 million pay-as-you-go and bond list for FY 2014 regional funds features 12 highway projects totaling $108.8 million and 22 transit projects totaling $98 million.  Proportionally, that’s 52.6% for highways and 47.3% for transit.

Distribution of Regional Transportation Funds Should Reflect a Closer Relationship to The Distribution of Users and Beneficiaries That Are Footing the Bill. [Annoying Capitalization In Original]

This is a nonsensical and nonserious argument for two reasons. First, the road network is mainly fine outside rush periods, and most of the car trips happen on less congested local roads. For commuting, which is when the traffic is worst, the transit percentage is far, far higher.

But what we spend on transportation, except for repairs (which are important) really should have nothing to do with the current mode share percentages.

Let’s imagine we are in an alternate reality where we never built Metro. Very few people ride transit because there is very little of it. Does that mean in this alternate world the case for building transit is weaker? Why? Maybe it’s stronger because we would be even further behind than we are today.

Or when we first built Metro, fewer people rode transit, so by Chase’s logic, that makes it a bad idea to have done it then?

Any investment in new transportation is not that much about current people. Current people will keep using the current lanes, trains, etc. We can make them a little better, but any investment in a place that’s got high demand will attract new users to fill up slack capacity.

New transportation infrastructure is primarily about new people. Build a road somewhere and people will move to places where that road accommodates their commute. Build a transit line and people will move to the areas around the stations if the line goes where they need to go.

A region’s preexisting mode share matters little. If you want more driving and traffic and car dependent housing build more roads. If you want more transit riding and TOD build transit.

Chase wants to see Virginia develop another tier of detached house suburbs beyond the existing ones. That’s his right to believe that but he should be honest about it. He’s also misguided.

While our existing suburban neighborhoods are an important part of the housing mix, since new market demand is mostly for walkable urban places, what we need to do is build transportation infrastructure that feeds that kind of growth for the future, like a street grid in Tysons, new transit lines, and better sidewalks and bike facilities everywhere.

We underinvested in transit compared to other developed nations (though more than many other US cities) for a long time. That’s a reason to work harder to catch up, not throw up our hands and assume that the future has to look like the past.

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.