When the “2030 Group” recently launched to push for “good sustainable growth,” some charged that it’s just a stalking horse for the freeway lobby and the roads they’ve been pushing unsuccessfully for decades.
That charge stemmed largely from the involvement of cofounder John Tilghman “Til” Hazel, a longtime freeway proponent. Jonathan O’Connell recently interviewed Hazel, who largely confirmed the fears by giving essentially one complaint about Fairfax County: that leaders had turned away from his endless freeway-building vision.
Hazel doesn’t just want one Outer Beltway, he wants two, in addition to the existing Fairfax County Parkway, for a total of four circumferential Fairfax freeways. O’Connell, to his credit, posed most of the counterarguments to endless freeway-building. Can’t Metro also relieve congestion? Isn’t Fairfax trying to grow at Tysons, around Metro stations? Isn’t the worst traffic east-west in Fairfax, along the current corridors, rather than north-south in the directions that any beltway would travel? Didn’t the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor grow without increasing traffic? Are you the “king of sprawl”?
Hazel, who was unapologetic about being the “king of sprawl,” responded with answers that come right out of the 1950s, which was when Hazel was in his 30s and perhaps developing his worldview. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to have learned much since.
Hazel’s comments perpetuate several longstanding myths.
Myth: Traffic congestion can be “solved.”
Hazel said, if Virginia had three Beltways, “We’d have minimal traffic congestion, we wouldn’t have people fighting to get north-south, we wouldn’t have the Beltway jammed up.” Nope.
The only places without traffic congestion are places where few people drive. The dominant planning paradigm of the mid-20th century was to build more roads when roads filled up. Then planners discovered “induced demand,” where road development simply triggered even more exurban housing growth leading to even more traffic.
New highways in metropolitan areas fill up in as little as five years. Neither Atlanta nor Houston’s multiple Beltways have erased congestion, and studies of the Outer Beltway here have shown that it has little to no effect on reducing Beltway traffic.
Yes, traffic in Northern Virginia is a problem. But it’s not really a problem that’s going to go away. At best, it can be managed, and directing growth in ways that generate little traffic, such as putting housing near jobs and both near Metro, as Arlington did, is the best way to manage it.
Myth: Traffic just moves somewhere else if you don’t widen roads.
Hazel is really angry that I-66 isn’t twice as wide as it is.
[Fairfax] took all the highways off the map in the ‘70s and they refused to build them. And we had the big shootout over [Interstate] 66, which is now inadequate because the Arlington crowd said, “Who wants to ever go to Fairfax? We don’t want all that traffic,” not realizing that it would be on Lee Highway and Arlington Boulevard if it wasn’t for 66. They defeated a decent 66. It should have been eight lanes instead of four.
Outright false. More people would be driving to work instead of taking Metro if there had been a wider 66. More people would be living west of Manassas and working in downtown DC. A few people might drive on Lee Highway and Arlington Boulevard instead, but relatively few. A wider 66 would have induced its own demand.
Myth: We need more freeways because transit can’t serve everyone.
Hazel feels that the Silver Line will be inadequate because it only goes east-west:
[Y]ou ride it from Reston to Tysons or you ride it to Tysons from the District. But look at where the people come from. They come from the south, the north, they come from the west, they come in a car.
When you look at where people come from to Tysons, they come from all points of the compass, and Metro’s not going to do that. If Metro was a big solution, why isn’t 66 in better shape than it is today?
Hazel is right that the Silver Line isn’t enough for a growing Tysons. That’s why it’s also important to plan light rail and buses north-south. But when Hazel says “they come in a car,” he’s perpetuating a common argument against transit: some people have to drive.
Yes, some people have to drive. Many people don’t live near transit or can’t use it for various reasons. Some also want to drive. That’s fine. But today, those people already drive, and we don’t have these Beltways Hazel wants. Right now, the transportation infrastructure serves (not always perfectly) the people who commute now.
New infrastructure is not really for them. It’s for the new people. If we build Beltways and Potomac River crossings, the new people who work at Tysons will live in Frederick. If we build transit, they’ll live in Falls Church, Vienna, Reston and the District.
The biggest planning fallacy is assuming that new people will live in the same places, do the same jobs, and travel the same ways as the existing people. New roads aren’t for you, they’re for them. Where do we want them to live and work?
Slightly more odd is how Hazel says the Silver Line won’t relieve congestion along I-66 because people come from the north and south. Last I checked, I-66 didn’t go to the north or south.
Myth: Because some people want suburban houses, we need lots of new suburban houses.
Tysons is a political cop-out for where people are going to go. The best they say Tysons can handle is 100,000 residents all in high-rises. Young people all think living on the 10th floor of a high-rise is great, but as soon as you get a couple of kids, you want to live in a place with a back yard. Where do the other million people who are coming into the region live?
How about all the houses that are already there? The ones on the market? And especially the ones which have lost considerable value and are going into foreclosure or are available on short sales?
National data show that by 2025, only 28% of households will be families with children. Yes, many families are having kids, and while some want to stay in the city, many want to live in suburban houses. But at the same time, there are many empty nesters living in suburban houses who want to go to the city. The solution is simple: Have the people who want the suburban houses buy the ones that are for sale.
Housing prices have stayed higher in urban than suburban areas, suggesting that more people want to go to the city than go away from it. The question is not how many people are going to want to live in houses, it’s how many more people will want to in future decades than do today. For our region, which is growing, that number is probably positive, but how much?
It’s not so high that Northern Virginia has to double or triple its sprawl. And since the urban housing is even more desirable, Virginia should be developing more housing in walkable areas than housing in sprawl areas. Hazel’s transportation vision would put all the infrastructure in the sprawl areas, which makes sense to him since he’s a sprawl developer, but shouldn’t to anyone else.
Myth: Metro didn’t relieve congestion.
This isn’t so much a myth as a bizarrely ridiculous assertion from Hazel:
If Metro was a big solution, why isn’t 66 in better shape than it is today?
Metro enabled massive growth without widening I-66. It’s that induced demand again. Transit induces its own demand as well. Build a new transportation facility, and new people will fill it. Just as new roads only make existing ones less crowded in Hazel’s imaginary world, so do rail lines not make existing roads less crowded either.
Instead, both spur growth. The only question is whether we want mostly transit-oriented growth or mostly sprawl growth. At least Hazel isn’t shy about admitting he wants sprawl growth. His vision for Northern Virginia is to fill all the farmland for 50 miles with housing subdivisions. It’s not anti-growth to argue that this isn’t the right future.
Myth or reality: The 2030 Group is serious about its desire for “good sustainable growth”?
I have always had a fundamental commitment to growth, prosperity and people, and the antis are against all three. I don’t make any apologies, I don’t defend it, if you don’t like it, don’t listen to me.
The reason Hazel is so frustrated is that most residents and leaders of the region realized, starting around the time Fairfax took those highways off the map in the ‘70s, that growth, prosperity and people didn’t have to mean sprawl development, and that’s not what people wanted.
So, we don’t have to listen to him. But he’s behind a new group that claims to be for “good sustainable growth.” The site sounds good. But the question for the staff and other leaders of the 2030 group is: Are you seriously interested in sustainable growth, which Hazel is not? Or are you just a front group for the freeway lobby?