Image from MWCOG.

The National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board approved the draft Regional Transportation Priorities Plan two weeks ago. It advocates a “fix it first” approach that directs resources towards keeping the transportation assets we have in good shape, rather than building massive new facilities that may be costly to maintain.

The plan is a significant victory for smart growth advocates because it doesn’t call for building any new highways. Maintaining Metro is the highest-scoring strategy overall. The plan calls for new transit facilities including both streetcar and bus rapid transit (BRT) lines, potentially using new express toll lanes on existing highways.

It also recommends capacity improvements like expanding Metro capacity in downtown DC, and focusing growth around existing transportation hubs and employment centers, offering more alternatives to driving. However, it relies on elected officials in local jurisdictions to make it happen.

The plan’s supposed to inform future updates to the region’s Constrained Long-Range Transportation Plan (CLRP), a more specific list of recommended capital investments, including this year’s update. The CLRP’s existing baseline includes the Silver and Purple lines, the planned DC streetcar network, and Arlington’s Columbia Pike and Crystal City streetcars.

But first, local governments need to invest in the transportation infrastructure we already have. “The success of all other strategies to improve transportation in our region relies on an existing system that functions properly and is safe,” the plan states. That includes Metro trains that run reliably and aren’t overcrowded, bus stops that are easy to get to, roads and sidewalks that are smooth, structurally sound bridges, and efficient traffic signals.

Another key aspect of the plan is its focus on the region’s activity centers, places like downtown DC or Bethesda that are walkable, bikeable, and well-served by transit. Simply directing more growth to these places can reduce car trips across the region. More people would have the opportunity to live or work there, while those who still chose to live elsewhere would have more options for getting to activity centers.

As MWCOG Principal Transportation Planner John Swanson put it, “We don’t just focus on supply-side additions to the system, but also on managing demand.”

Creating more activity centers is one of five central long-term strategies of the plan. The others are adding more capacity on the existing transit system, enhancing circulation within activity centers, encouraging BRT and other cost-effective transit services, and more express toll lanes.

At a press event January 15, Swanson emphasized that the Regional Transportation Priorities Plan is part of on ongoing planning process. It “shows why land use matters and why a lot of little decisions like [building better] bus stops matter,” Swanson added. “If they aren’t accessible and attractive, other work is for naught.”

The TPB recommends focusing on “modes that can move more people at lower cost.” The plan generally avoids citing specific projects or locations of concern. Rather, it’s intended as a guide for state, county, and municipal officials as they determine which transportation projects deserve a share of their limited budgets.

Whether the vision comes true or not will depend on the elected leaders of the member jurisdictions. It will also require restoring citizens’ trust in their government, meaning government must demonstrate that it is taking citizen input seriously and is getting the most bang for taxpayers’ buck.

Among its other specific suggestions:

  • Local governments should help Metro reach its state of good repair goals outlined in Metro Forward.
  • Give Metro the resources needed to add capacity, including by adding more eight-car trains and increasing pedestrian flow capacity at constrained stations like Union Station.
  • Enhance and expand commuter rail service, primarily by addressing its two biggest constraints: limited capacity at Union Station and over the decrepit Long Bridge, the region’s only crossing of the Potomac for commuter, intercity passenger, and freight trains.
  • Make major investments in relatively inexpensive pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure. It cites the District’s success with new bike lanes and expanding Capital Bikeshare, and says adequate sidewalks and crossing signals are still lacking in much of the region.
  • Alleviate bottlenecks in the highway network by building new on- and off-ramps, extra turn lanes, and adding lanes in limited cases.
  • Grow the network of electric car charging stations to incentivize their use.
  • Make the road network safer and more efficient by such often-overlooked strategies as providing more real-time information to drivers, and by updating existing traffic laws, particularly to offer more protection to pedestrians and bicyclists.

The plan reflects and builds upon the work of the late Ron Kirby, the former MWCOG transportation planning director whose shocking murder in his home two months ago remains unsolved. The document is dedicated in his memory. Kirby chose not to pick sides in the more roads vs. more transit tug-of-war, but he was willing to say we should fix things first.

The TPB’s next step is to disseminate the plan to both elected and administrative officials in all member jurisdictions and explain how it works. The plan highlights broad agreement at the regional level, and gives jurisdictions a framework for decision-making.

If it agrees, for example, that maintaining the existing system is the top priority, then its practices should reflect that. Thanks to language in a resolution the TPB adopted on January 15, the RTPP will guide DC, Maryland, and Virginia when they propose projects for inclusion in the CLRP.

“This work fits into a broader picture of what people are asking for,” said Todd Turner, TPB member and Bowie city councilmember. “[Once people] see the impact of funding decisions on them, they become more supportive.”

Read together with MWCOG’s Region Forward plan, its Climate Change Report, and its Activity Centers map, the RTPP should guide the region to a better-managed, more transit-oriented, and more sustainable transportation future.

Malcolm Kenton lives in the DC’s NoMa neighborhood. Hailing from Greensboro, NC and a graduate of Guilford College, he is a passionate advocate for world-class passenger rail and other forms of sustainable transportation and for incorporating nature and low-impact design into the urban fabric. The views he expresses on GGWash are his own.