Photo from Washington State DOT on Flickr.

Are highway toll lanes a great way to provide rapid bus service all over the region, or a sneaky way to widen roads under the auspices of improving transit?

Planners at the Transportation Planning Board (TPB) are currently preparing a Regional Transportation Priorities Plan. It will be a sort of wish list of transportation projects and strategies the DC region may want to consider funding some time in the future.

One interesting concept they propose is to widen nearly every highway in the region with a new set of variably-priced toll lanes, like the express lanes that recently opened on the Beltway in Virginia.

The idea is that tolls would be set high enough to ensure traffic on the lanes moves quickly, which would simultaneously improve car congestion and provide all the benefits of a dedicated busway. Sounds great, except it never works that way in real life.

Why this won’t work as promised

There are two big problems with this approach.

First, transit is most effective when it’s located along dense, mixed-use corridors, where riders can walk to their destination on at least one end of the route. Highways never work very well, because the land use surrounding highways is inevitably spread out and car-oriented nearly all the time.

Even Metrorail stations in the most prosperous parts of the region have trouble attracting development if they’re in a highway median.

And without surface bus lanes on downtown streets, highway buses will get clogged in downtown traffic just like cars.

That’s not to say highways shouldn’t have good buses. Of course they should, because there are some trips that can be served that way. But you will never succeed in building a truly great transit system when it’s built as an afterthought to highways, because the land use drives ridership.

That brings up the second big problem: Transit lines that are promised as an afterthought to highway expansion are always the first thing to be cut when money runs low.

That’s exactly what happened on both the Beltway express lanes in Virginia and on the ICC in Maryland, which both use variably-priced tolls to keep traffic moving.

In Virginia, the Beltway HOT lanes were originally sold as “HOT/BRT lanes.” But planners stopped promising BRT before construction even started. Now there are a handful of commuter buses that use the HOT lanes, but they’re nothing like a true all-day BRT line.

In Maryland, planners never promised BRT on the ICC, but they did promise good bus service. Lo and behold, just a couple of years after opening the ICC, the state proposed to eliminate 3 of its 5 bus routes.

Today, neither the Beltway nor the ICC have bus service anywhere near as good as the regular bus lines on 16th Street in DC or Columbia Pike in Virginia. Say nothing of BRT. On the other hand, those highways got built.

A better alternate exists, but isn’t in the plan

Oddly, the TPB’s proposed plan doesn’t say anything about BRT on arterial roads, where it’s more likely to do the most good.

Arterial roads have the most demand for bus service, and produce the most bus ridership, precisely because they’re the main streets with all the mixed-use destinations.

That’s why Montgomery County, Arlington, and Alexandria are all working on actual BRT projects on arterial roads.

But the upcoming BRT lines in Montgomery, Arlington, and Alexandria could be so much more effective if they were coordinated into a larger regional network. As the main cross-jurisdictional planning agency for the DC region, TPB should be helping to plan that network, with lines in Fairfax, Prince George’s, and DC. 

Instead, they’re mucked up pushing a highway plan that doesn’t really do much good for transit.

Tell TPB to look at arterial BRT instead

The draft Regional Transportation Priorities Plan does say arterials should have “bus priority,” such as MetroExtra-like limited stop routes. That’s good, but why not push for something better? With many jurisdictions looking at arterial BRT anyway, there’s no reason to hold back.

TPB is good at studying alternatives. In fact, they’ve already completed multiple studies looking at the variably-priced lanes idea. They should give at least as much attention to arterial BRT.

TPB is still accepting public comments on its draft plan, but today is the last day. They need to hear that a few buses won’t convince transit advocates to support the biggest expansion of sprawl-inducing highway capacity in the DC region since Eisenhower. They need to hear that the proper place for transit is arterial roads, not highways.

Steven Yates grew up in Indiana before moving to DC in 2002 to attend college at American University.  He currently lives in Southwest DC.