Today, the Transportation Planning Board will hear a plan

scenario for a major expansion of highway lanes outside the Beltway, coupled with road pricing, BRT, and some concentration of development in “activity centers.”

The plan scenario tries to bring evaluates the possibility of bringing road pricing, a controversial yet valuable idea, to the Washington region. Variably-priced lanes coupled with transit alternatives make roads work more efficiently while also giving people options to get around without driving or paying the tolls.

New Bus Rapid Transit would run on the new lanes and use special dedicated ramps to access stations, making them act somewhat like rail in that vehicles would make few stops and run between them fairly quickly. It would most resemble the Metro lines that are currently on or near freeways, since these stations would be close to the freeway and therefore more like park and ride lots with potential for development rather than serving commercial corridors as underground Metro lines do.

Proposed network of Bus Rapid Transit service on priced lanes.

Unlike some early versions, it even includes options for pricing 500 miles of existing capacity in DC and on parkways instead of adding lanes. There’s no room to expand the freeways in DC or the parkways, which are already far more freeway-like than they were intended. Pricing this existing capacity is a good idea that will nevertheless be very politically controversial, and the study team, including TPB staff and the Brookings Metropolitan Policy research, is taking on a tough but worthy task in advocating for that element. a related grant to TPB and Brookings Metropolitan Policy Research will evaluate the potential for public support for some kind of tolling.

Proposed network of priced lanes. Roads in black add new capacity, while roads in green and red price existing capacity.

But the plan scenario falls short in its largest component: 650 miles of new lanes on virtually every non-NPS freeway outside DC. If new lanes have to be added, it makes sense to price those lanes. But regardless, more lanes means more sprawl unless suburban and rural counties, especially Frederick, Howard, Prince George’s, Loudoun and Prince William, downzone most of their land to prevent the replacement of farms and forests far from the core with more cookie-cutter houses.

Like it or not, the lack of roadway capacity is currently the brake on sprawl. In the ideal world, zoning would check sprawl instead and there would be plenty of infrastructure money. In that scenario, there wouldn’t be much harm in building roads and also rails to adequate capacity for everyone. But that’s not the case. Little is stopping outer counties from approving new suburban subdivisions. The difficulty of getting to jobs provides an incentive to live closer to the core, making it more likely infill development projects will get built to accommodate residents near work.

The report also buries the price tag of this plan scenario: $51 billion. That’s because even priced lanes can’t come close to recouping construction costs. The plan scenario simply assumes that the revenue from lanes will cover the costs of maintaining the proposed BRT service. That’s cheaper than running buses not subsidized by tolls, but still represents a huge investment of funds in roadway capacity.

Oddly, this scenario was dubbed the “Aspirations Scenario.” It’s disappointing if this is the best aspiration TPB staff have for the region.

Michael Eichler, who worked on the report, explained that the title, “aspirations scenario,” is TPB jargon for a scenario that goes beyond the standard Constrained Long-Range Plan, and doesn’t necessarily represent a value judgment.

What about the aspiration, for example, to alleviate the Rosslyn bottleneck and increase overall capacity on the Metrorail system? $51 billion could do a lot for Metro capacity. The report admits that This scenario will also increase greenhouse gas emissions and overall VMT:

More road capacity and priced lanes mean that more people can drive longer and faster, which resulted in more driving and longer trips. ... The provision of priced lanes extending into the outer suburbs and beyond make longer trips more convenient, which has the potential to encourage people to live further out, far from work sites. ...

High increases of 5% or higher are produced by the full scenario for NOx and PM2.5 precursor NOx.  Higher VMT and much higher speeds than the baseline cause this increase in pollution.  Similarly, increases in CO2 occur for this reason. [The] inability to model speeds higher than 65 mph (which constitute 19% of total scenario VMT) largely underestimates CO2 emissions because CO2 emissions rates rise rapidly as speeds beyond 65 mph increase.

The numbers also look rosier than they might because the report is actually conflating two, fairly independent scenarios: One which would concentrate more development in “activity centers,” the other which creates this network of lanes. While the BRT network does make denser activity centers somewhat more feasible, the mode share shift is slight, and TPB ought to be studying the value of just focusing development and connecting centers with buses that don’t require new lanes.

Meanwhile, TPB is not pushing its

A better vision for the future would be TPB’s “What Would It Take?” scenario that identified the necessary steps to actually meet greenhouse gas targets. That scenario met criticism from representatives from outer suburbs who felt that they simply did not have the will to do what “it takes.”

Clearly, TPB is

The study’s authors seem to be trying to take a realpolitik approach here and come up with something

it thinks it can sell

they think local jurisdictions can support. Outer jurisdictions get the lane expansions they want, but also agree to the concentration of development they know they should do but might have trouble selling. DC and to a lesser extent Arlington get to avoid huge new capacity increases and use pricing to move commuters more efficiently on existing roadways, something outer jurisdictions might otherwise oppose. And at least new lanes are priced instead of free, and that money funds some transit expansion.

Added: According to Eichler, each jurisdiction participated in choosing the components in their jurisdiction; DC preferred tolling existing capacity to new capacity, while outer jurisdictions preferred new lanes. 

However, this is also preemptively abandoning most better solutions.

Unfortunately, this is

the common approach

the Achilles heel of the TPB: because individual jurisdictions have so much control over their own elements, each jurisdiction essentially gets what they want for themselves, almost as if there weren’t planning at all. Meanwhile, the overall region and environment suffers.

In fact, the base scenario calls for new capacity everywhere, and then only switches to pricing DC and NPS roads as an alternative. Why can’t pricing all existing roads be the base scenario, and then add new capacity here and there only as options? Or, better yet, why can’t the “What Would It Take” recommendations be the base scenario, with something closer to this one as the alternatives?

The TPB should study the development concentration, or what they call “land use sensitivity” separately, and also look at the potential for pricing existing capacity on all roadways. Maybe politically, it would get hammered into something that combines some new capacity and some not.

But TPB has a scenario to actually meet greenhouse goals while still growing the region, yet it’s not even seriously trying to make it feasible. That abdicates the role of making tough choices our regional planning organization ought to embrace.

Update: Michael Eichler, a former TPB planner who worked on the study, explained that this study was not a “plan” people are pushing in the way that the article assumed. Rather, it’s just a “scenario” to illustrate a potential future driven by various constraints in the TPB process. Nevertheless, there are many who would like to bring this scenario about, so it’s important to discuss the drawbacks of this approach and, when possible, steer the TPB’s work toward scenarios that present promising possibilities.

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 here are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.