For people who live and work in the District, jurisdictional boundaries may not be much of a consideration. However, for those who travel in and out of DC on a daily basis, they're a real headache. While crossing jurisdictional boundaries over the course of a week (or in a day), commuters have to navigate various modes of transit run by different authorities in those different jurisdictions — each with their own fare system. It's not the seamless experience it could be.
“If you could be king or queen for a day, with unlimited resources, what would you do?” A moderator posed this question at a recent panel hosted by the Greater Washington Partnership, a civic alliance made up of CEOs, entrepreneurs, and other business leaders in the region. Without hesitation, one panelist said he'd break down jurisdictional boundaries: “To people in the region, they’re meaningless.”
Over the course of the morning, several experts offered their thoughts on what the problems to regional integration are, how to fix them, and (hopefully) how to fund the future of mobility in the greater Washington region.
Other cities are making transit more seamless, but the Washington region has extra hurdles
Scott Kubly, former director of Seattle’s Department of Transportation (DOT), gave the example of a Seattle man trying to get home from the airport. Over the course of his return trip, he had to navigate the airport, taxi services, the bus, and the tram — all of which were run by different agencies with different payment methods. At the end of the day, Kubly pointed out, people just want to get from point A to B, preferably without having to use several different cards or apps to do so.
To improve the commuter experience and to reduce congestion, Kubly said Seattle reduced single-occupancy driving and got more people to take the bus by making small improvements to the system. The city is also planning major overhauls to simplify the fare system in the near future.
DC, however, is a different animal from Seattle and other cities. Solving regional transportation issues requires the cooperation of Maryland, Virginia, DC, and the federal government.
In DC alone, there are plethora of transit options including ride-hailing in the form of Uber or Lyft, various bike shares, taxis, the bus, and the Metro. All of them require different apps or cards to use. SmarTrip can be used with WMATA metro rail and bus, but it does not integrate with bikeshare or ride-hailing options. Neither is it mobile-compatible. The same goes for CharmCard (Baltimore) and GRTC (Richmond).
If you want to travel region-wide, the number of cards in your wallet or apps on your phone must increase even more.
It doesn't have to be like this. Other peer cities have figured out how to integrate their transit system to provide a more seamless user experience. Chicago, for example, is moving to merge the Ventra card (used with CTA) with Divvy bike, which will allow them to use one card for the train, bus, and bikeshare. London's Oyster Card can also be used across multiple modes of transit in different cities.
Imagine if you could use your SmarTrip card not just for the bus and metro, but also for CaBi and dockless bikeshare in DC. What if we could use that one card for all the modes of transit from Baltimore to Richmond? Simplifying these modes of transit may go a significant way to reducing user headaches.
To get there, panelists say lawmakers and their constituents in the region have to come to the conclusion that kicking the can down the road in favor of short-term solutions helps no one. We all use the system, and it's beneficial to connect the region and reduce congestion. That means it's only fair that all parties get onboard to fund it.
Beth Osborne, Senior Advisor of Transportation for America, offered a more candid response. She says a clear vision is necessary to get local government and councilmembers on board, and we need to “use competition to pit them against each other in a positive way. It'll force [the various jurisdictions] to do better.”
We can't fix everything, but we should be more transparent about what we're working on
Down the road, Osborne thinks many city-dwellers will have to come to the realization that owning a personal vehicle is cost-prohibitive, and relying on a simplified and (hopefully) punctual transit system is better. Some problems we don't need to completely solve, and we need to be honest and realistic about that.
“It's not our obligation to solve congestion completely, or for all people,” Osborne pointed out. Besides, “Some congestion is a sign of economic success.”
Transparency, however, is an issue that should be prioritized. Many people don't know how their money is being used, and that leads to a lack of trust.
“It's as opaque as can be, and most people don’t know where the money goes and what they get for it.” Osborne said. “Our federal programs need more analysis and fixing — there’s a reason that taxpayers are skeptical of putting more money into something they don’t understand.”
Osborne also took issue with how infrastructure is funded, pointing out that we're not charging what is necessary to maintain our systems. Lawmakers and other leaders should fill their constituents in on how much maintenance and construction actually costs.
First, we have to pass an infrastructure bill and fund it long-term
Former Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood's biggest beef was infrastructure, or more specifically, the lack of a solid plan to address it. Like many, the former Secretary thought that one thing the Trump administration would come through on is a huge infrastructure bill, but that has yet to appear.
Anyone who spends time thinking about transportation — or simply uses roads, sidewalks, bridges (especially bridges), any infrastructure really — is probably aware of the upkeep problem. Our infrastructure is crumbling, and the best we're doing right now is funding short term patches when we need a long term sustainable plan for the future.
There was an audible groan when LaHood mentioned Memorial Bridge. Many bridges around the country are either functionally obsolete or structurally deficient. The upside is that many of these bridges are finally getting the TLC they need, and towards the end of 2017, almost $230 was approved to repair Memorial Bridge. However, many more across the country are reaching the end of their lifespan and will need similar investments, but lack a plan and funding to do so.
LaHood urged those present from the business community to lobby for the good of the region. He mentioned two major ways to do this.
The first thing that needs to happen? The business community needs to push their elected officials to get on board with pro-infrastructure policies and projects. LaHood didn't offer much on specifics for how to get public officials on board, just that it needed to be done.
The other possible solution to funding a comprehensive and long term plan for infrastructure, according to LaHood, is to create an infrastructure bank and raise the gas tax. LaHood mentioned that other states have already tried this, but there is still resistance in Congress to increasing a tax on gas. Ultimately, LaHood thinks that if congress is going to go along with a massive infrastructure bill, leadership has to come from the president.
He added, “A $200 billion bill isn't going to do anything but fill a few potholes.”
Osborne didn't agree that a gas tax would go far enough, especially with cars switching to electric and autonomous vehicles slowly but surely making progress towards viability. She thinks funding would have to come from somewhere else. Kubly pointed to other revenue streams like a property taxes and a motor vehicle excise tax. Other panelists floated an idea of a tax on ride-hailing, given its impact on public transit.
There's a path forward, and we all need to be a part of it
Jason Miller, the newly-minted CEO of the Greater Washington Partnership (GWP), offered his vision for the future of the region. Their focus is on transportation, and their goal is “a more dynamic, inclusive, united super-region that stretches from Baltimore to Richmond.” GWP sees the future of transportation as an integrated effort with community input, not just a plan involving political leaders and wealthy, well-connected business leaders.
“I think we could come up with lots of smart ideas if we put 10 people in a room for a few weeks, but they wouldn't be smart ideas that would end up happening. We launched a [Request For Information] that is open to everyone to provide input. We're going to be holding more events like this, and smaller round tables, to engage people on issues around this question on ensuring it's actually beneficial to whole community.”
To further achieve this goal, Miller says GWP works with groups that focus on issues of equitable access.
“Frankly, things don't get done unless you can have a large cross-section of the community supportive of those activities,” Miller pointed out. “Will 100 percent of people like everything? No. Because there's no version that has perfect consensus. But we do want it to be things that are broadly supported, that people are excited about, and we can agree on some common priorities so we can move the ball forward.”
Staying informed and participating is key. If you'd like to let the Greater Washington Partnership know what you think, you have a few days left to record your opinions here.