The super-Washington region, including DC, Baltimore, and Richmond, should improve the MARC and VRE rail systems including running service through DC. It should finish networks of trails and try congestion pricing in DC and adjacent parts of Arlington. It should improve bus service, promote employer incentives to not drive alone, increase equity, do more with technology, and better fund and govern transportation in the region.
These are some of the recommendations from a wide-ranging new Blueprint for Regional Mobility, released Monday by the Greater Washington Partnership.
The Partnership, founded two years ago, includes 22 CEOs and is led by financier Russ Ramsey, businessman and sports team owner Ted Leonsis, and banking executive Peter Scher. They worked together on the region's bid for the Olympics, and when that fell apart, created a new organization to help the greater “Capital Region,” from Baltimore to Richmond, be more globally competitive.
Transportation is one of the key issues the Partnership decided to take on; it has released a number of specific issue briefs and the work is culminating in this Blueprint, led by Partnership staff, Thomas Farrell of Dominion Energy, EY's Mark Weinberger, and Kenneth Samet of MedStar.
DC Sustainable Transportation has been working with the Partnership on many of our transportation efforts, and gave feedback throughout the development of this blueprint. Greater Greater Washington's Editorial Board and Advocacy Committee got a look and decided to sign on to a letter of support as well.
We think the recommendations in the Blueprint are, on the whole, the kind of bold and forward-thinking ideas we need to get people moving as our region grows. Our committees disagree specifically with one item and also wanted to point out some areas we hope the region will push on beyond what's in this ambitious document.
To be honest, I was nervous when I first heard this group of CEOs were pushing for big ideas on transportation. Would they just end up recommending ideas like an Outer Beltway/new Potomac River highway bridge, a bad idea that keeps coming back because it has intuitive appeal for people driving despite analyses that say it won't help? Or would they be distracted by shiny vaporware ideas like the hyperloop, which is still mostly hype and not much loop? The answer: No. The Outer Beltway is not in the Blueprint, nor is hyperloop, and this document is far from ignorant. Quite the opposite.
Priorities, Solutions, and Actions
The Blueprint is structured around four Priorities, seven big Solutions, and within each Solution, a set of Actions.
Here are the Priorities that undergird the Partnership's approach to transportation (things in quotes are their words; others are paraphrases):
- ”Connect the Super-Region”: Get people between the Baltimore, Washington, and Richmond metro areas.
- ”Improve the Consumer Experience”: Get people around better, faster, more reliably, more conveniently, etc.
- ”Ensure Equitable Access”: Make sure our transportation system serves everyone and enhances equity.
- ”Integrate Innovation”: New technologies offer ways to better provide transportation or help people find out about it.
With those as a base, the Blueprint recommends the following seven Solutions and 20 Actions:
- ”Modernize Intercity and Commuter Rail”
- Fix bottlenecks in the rail system
- Redevelop or modernize main train stations
- Integrate MARC and VRE into a single network
“Improve Roadway and Trail Performance”
- Expand toll lanes
- Try congestion pricing
- Complete trail networks in all three cities
“Create High-Performing Public Transit”
- Improve Baltimore transit and create a vision to expand it
- Speed buses in Washington including bus lanes
- Expand Richmond transit
“Grow Employer Mobility Programs”
- Get more employers offering commuter programs
- Improve programs to work better for residents
“Expand Access to Opportunity”
- Develop more and inclusively around transit
- Increase local and targeted hiring practices
“Enable a Technology-Driven Future”
- Share data across jurisdictions
- Let people plan, book, and pay for travel across modes
- Make traffic signals smarter
- Coordinate on autonomous vehicle strategy
“Reform Governance and Funding”
- Make transportation funding choices with data
- Create a new Baltimore transit governance structure
- Raise gas taxes and try a VMT fee
Let's look at what these mean one by one, and what the GGWash volunteer committees think of them.
Faster rail between Baltimore and Richmond
There are already trains between the major cities of the super-region. Some people commute on them, but they could serve so many more people if they were faster, more frequent, and reliable. State governments wring their hands over traffic on I-95 and the BW Parkway; better train service is a great approach.
The obstacles to more and better train service lie in a few choke points which need replacing: the Long Bridge over the Potomac, Union Station, the B&P tunnel in Baltimore, and limited platforms at BWI. The Blueprint recommends steps for the state governments, Congressional delegations, Amtrak, and others to get things moving on these priorities. It also recomemends creating redevelopment compacts for Union Station, Baltimore Penn Station, and Staples Mill station in Richmond.
When the Long Bridge and Union Station projects are done, two of the biggest hurdles to integrating MARC and VRE service will have fallen. Connecting the two into an integrated commuter rail system, or at least sending MARC trains to Alexandria, has long been a good idea and is even more so now with Amazon in Crystal City. The Blueprint recommends the Council of Governments (COG) and the states do a feasibility study and MARC and VRE start coordinating any purchases of new equipment now with this end in mind.
What GGWash committees think: This is all much needed. We'd also like to see a focus on Richmond's Main Street station and the tracks to get there. Trains often face delays getting into downtown Richmond, but it's important to have good service there to support walkable urbanism and transit-oriented development in Richmond.
More reliable roads and trails
The Blueprint doesn't recommend criss-crossing the region with new highways. Instead, it focuses on making our road system work better, and also building and connecting bike and walking trails.
It recommends a network of “performance-driven tolling” lanes, like the ones already around the region which charge single-passenger vehicles but not carpools. The Partnership previously created a set of principles for such lanes, much of which makes sense, like using revenues not just on the road in question but for travel generally, including transit; ensuring equity; and focusing on moving people, not vehicles.
Tolling makes sense as a way to manage road capacity. But if it's used as a way to add more highway lanes and move more cars, that's counterproductive to helping the region grow sustainably. Like Maryland Governor Larry Hogan's plans to toll and widen the Beltway, I-270, and BW Parkway, which the Blueprint endorses and we don't.
There's another good tolling-oriented big idea in the Blueprint: congestion pricing. The Blueprint suggests DC, Virginia, and COG study the potential for congestion pricing, which would put a price on driving in a set zone, perhaps just downtown DC or perhaps larger, like one including the future Amazon areas or others in Arlington. This is already part of DC's MoveDC plan and the Sustainable DC plan. And it might be the only way to keep traffic from increasing with growing use of Uber and Lyft and, in the future, autonomous vehicles.
The third idea in this section is trail networks in each of the cities. Baltimore and DC have trail network plans, and the straightforward Blueprint recommendation is to implement them. Richmond, on the other hand, needs to create a trail network plan and then build it.
What GGWash committees think: Two thumbs up to congestion pricing and trails. There's a lot good in the “performance-driven tolling” brief, but we don't agree with the way the document endorses Hogan's widening projects. This is the one major piece of the Blueprint we disagree with. Also, while the Blueprint says funding from the Hogan projects should contribute to the American Legion Bridge and adding transit, but that might mean widening the bridge. A better statement would ensure that all of the revenue fund projects, including bike/ped projects, that reduce car dependence.
Better, more integrated transit
Since the first section already covered regional rail, this transit section takes each of the three sub-regions individually. This is restating a lot of what the Partnership had previously recommended in a “Rethinking the Bus” brief.
Baltimore quite simply needs a lot more transit and a regional plan for it. The Blueprint recommends that, and also asks the MTA to report more information like on-time performance for each route and time of the day.
Richmond also needs more transit, particularly to the surrounding counties which have low transit accessibility, the Blueprint says.
For Washington, there are already buses to most parts of the region. The challenge in Washington is to better integrate all of the region's bus providers and implement bus priority corridors with dedicated lanes and other treatments to speed up buses.
What GGWash committees think: These are good ideas. The main suggestions we have are around transit ideas not listed in this document. It's understandable that with many CEOs who need to sign off, perhaps some transit ideas got consensus and some need more discussion. There's lots of transit here, and this doesn't have to be exhaustive. Still, it's notable that Metro doesn't appear in this section; we feel that ensuring a healthy Metro is an absolute must. More statements about repurposing surface travel lanes for bus or light rail, beyond the ones that are already in existing plans, would also be valuable.
Employer commute programs
It doesn't get as much attention as flashy infrastructure like roads and rails, but employers can do a lot (or not do a lot) to help people find and use alternatives to driving alone. This is called Transportation Demand Management, and some jurisdictions, like Arlington, do a lot to encourage employers along these lines. The Blueprint suggests doing more of it.
For instance, it says, the super-region gained 200,000 jobs from 2013 to 2016 but about 70% of them involved driving alone, adding 153,000 car commutes to area roads. Meanwhile, downtown Seattle added 60,000 jobs from 2010 to 2017 but actually reduced car commutes by 4,500. (Arlington says it, too, has kept traffic from increasing as its population has grown, thanks to many of these measures).
The Blueprint enumerates five “core employer mobility programs” and a larger set of “innovative mobility programs.” The Partnership wants to create a “challenge” to ask all employers to implement all five of the “core” programs and at least two of the “innovative” ones. Also, area governments and COG could set metrics and do region-wide surveys to track the impact of TDM measures.
It also says many employers find it cumbersome to take advantage of public benefit programs, which could be streamlined. And transit and bikeshare agencies could offer bulk purchases at a discount (like the Metro U-Pass available to American University students).
What GGWash volunteers think: These are good. Showers are also important along with secure bike parking to encourage cycling. The “innovative” items around parking, like charging for parking or cash-outs, ideally would be measures all employers take. As structured, the “innovative” list includes some really mode-altering ones, and some, like having a coordinator, which are a good idea (and who knows, maybe have a really big impact!) but are also a lighter touch.
Equity in transportation
The Partnership convened a group of organizations to explore policies to reduce or eliminate historical inequities in transportation. This included people from Morgan State University, the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, UMD, the Richmond City Council, Transportation for America, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, AFL-CIO, Howard University, Brookings, and Urban Institute. The group settled on two specific recommendations.
The first is to expand preferences for contractors who hire “local residents, veterans, or unemployed community members.” Some area jurisdictions and agencies allow such preferences or require measures that favor contractors who do this, but other jurisdictions do not. The Partnership is recommending state and federal policies to favor this, noting that such policies keep revenue inside the local community and create career pathways for people in economically disadvantaged communities.
The second recommendation is around transit-oriented development. Jurisdictions should encourage building homes and jobs near transit, which makes them more accessible to people who can't afford cars. Also, new transit in lower-income areas should come with a “corridor community preservation and improvement plan” to protect against displacement in the nearby communities.
What GGWash volunteers think: These are good steps, though it's also certain the discussions covered a lot more than is here. For instance, TOD is great, but it's particularly important to add jobs on the east side of the region, and the Blueprint doesn't talk about this issue, known as the east-west divide. With jobs disproportionately located in the western parts of the region, residents to the east face longer commutes and have fewer employement options. The divide is also inefficient for transportation: A 2016 WMATA study found that growing jobs on the east side could swing Metrorail from running a deficit of $350 million a year to a $270 million surplus. Or even if a surplus is not so realistic, even leaning more toward east side growth than today's unbalanced pattern could save tens of millions.
That's not so easy, for sure; it's hard to tell governments of west side counties that they ought to compete less fiercely to woo new employers, and employers have their own reasons for preferring to cluster. But the status quo has its own big price, both in dollars and equity.
Similarly, really advancing equity in transportation also involves issues of providing affordable housing and affordable ways for people to live nearer their jobs. The Blueprint makes a start here at addressing a very large and important issue.
Use new technology
Technology is advancing all the time, and the Blueprint highlights a number of ways to use technology for better mobility in the super-region.
One valuable but less sexy step is for all of the governments and transportation agencies in the region to share the data they collect about travel demand and performance, maintaining people's privacy, and aid local research universities in analyzing it.
A second proposal: push “integrated mobility platforms” that let travelers plan, book, and pay for trips across modes like transit, bikeshare, ride-hailing, and more. This is a proposal the Partnership has already explored in a report, which author David Zipper wrote about in a set of posts for GGWash. Other cities around the world have been experimenting with this promising idea.
The Blueprint recommends deploying “smart traffic signals,” where video cameras and sensors detect real-time conditions and make adjustments. Notably, it also asks DOTs to “recommend best practices for traffic signal hierarchy prioritization for private vehicles, shared vehicles, transit vehicles, bikes, and pedestrians.” That means it's not simply saying the goal of the signals is to move cars as fast as possible, but serve all road users and move people rather than vehicles.
Finally, autonomous vehicles are coming, eventually, and the Partnership wants to see regional governments work together to plan strategy for these instead of doing everything inside their individual boxes. Through DCST, I'm currently coordinating a DC-funded study of autonomous vehicles and their impact on the District. Having regional coordination is a good idea, and we plan to communicate with officials in Maryland and Virginia as part of the study (but it's true that the study will mostly look at DC because that's who's funding it).
What GGWash committees think: There's a lot that can be said about all of these topics, including what's said and more that could be also. On smart signals, it's great to ask for a study of performance metrics, and the Blueprint says, “Blindly prioritizing improvements for private vehicle movement at intersections can limit the growth of transit ridership, biking, and walking—growth that the region’s state and regional transportation plans seek to support.” Any ways to strengthen this point and remind DOTs they aren't simply using signals to speed up motor vehicles is important.
On autonomous vehicles, clearly this could be a whole Blueprint on its own. This section, and others, could also talk more about freight. More broadly, let's be clear that we're facing a similar situation as when cars first came to cities. They're a big opportunity, but also a danger. Blindly racing to embrace new technology here could amount to making the same mistakes the United States did in the 20th century with automobiles. Thoughtful planning can turn autonomous cars to improve life for residents instead of making it worse.
But the Blueprint isn't trying to say everything right now. Better regional coordination is a no-brainer.
Transportation makes up a lot of governments' budgets. Some jurisdictions, like Virginia, have a rigorous system for evaluating the costs and benefits of various investments and procedures that push for decisions to follow this data. A lot depends on how the formulas work, but Virginia's done a pretty nice job of it on the whole. The DC region's Transportation Planning Board also does it.
DC doesn't at all. The Maryland legislature just established a new system to do this, which was slowed down last year amid complaints by Republicans who wanted to keep funding roads in lightly-populated areas that might not score well.
The Blueprint recommends that DC start using performance metrics, as should the Metropolitan Planning Organizations for Baltimore and Richmond, the BMC and RRTPO respectively, as well as WMATA (WMATA has a process for its repair projects, but it's not transparent). And it recommends that all MPOs create clearer standards that include equitable access as “a primary performance measure.”
The Maryland MTA operates and plans Baltimore transit, and the MTA is controlled by the governor, making some decisions very political. Having direct state control of transportation is unusual nationally, and the Partnership recommends creating a new governance structure that involves the city and counties as well. This, they hope, will reduce the degree to which changes in governors whipsaws Baltimore projects like the now-canceled Red Line from hot to cold and maybe back again.
Finally, funding. Most transportation depends on the federal gas tax, which hasn't kept up with inflation. It was last raised in 1993, and now essentially brings in 40% less than it did 25 years ago. The Partnership suggests exploring higher gas taxes and other revenue sources. Gas taxes also break down if vehicles are eletrified, which they need to be if we're to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And more fuel-efficient vehicles also reduce revenues while still putting wear and tear on roads. The Blueprint recommends experimenting with other funding sources like a Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) fee.
What GGWash committees think: Good ideas here. In addition to Baltimore, it might be worth considering a regional entity for Montgomery and Prince George's counties also, similar to the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority. On revenue sources, calling for more exploration/discussion is great, but at some point it has to turn into concrete proposals. A VMT fee will be controversial, but is absolutely worth further work. Let's hope the CEOs of the Partnership are willing to really push for actual change here.
Our volunteer committees agreed with signing onto this, with the specific caveat that we aren't in agreement about widening highways like the Beltway, 270, and the BW Parkway with toll lanes. On the other hand, they appreciate that this document is looking at tolls instead of blindly adding unpriced road capacity.
Members noted that as an explicitly super-regional document, there's more focus on long-range and suburban travel and fewer items about urban mobility, Metro, BRT, or affordable housing. They recognized that one Blueprint couldn't say everything and know that this reflects the places the staff, CEOs, and stakeholders could reach consensus, but this should be a starting point, not an end, for many conversations.
The regional Transportation Planning Board, which comprises elected officials from around the Washington region, just issued Visualize 2045, a long-range transportation plan. That includes seven aspirational ideas which have a lot in common with the Blueprint: both talk about building around under-utilized Metro stations, about bus priority/BRT, about employer incentives to not drive alone including telecommuting, about bike trails, and about toll highways.
Sometimes the Blueprint is more ambitious, like on bike trails and commuting incentives; sometimes the reverse, and with a few exceptions this Blueprint is more focused on specific ideas for intergovernmental coordination than big-ticket infrastructure. And the TPB focused on Metro while the Partnership looks more at commuter rail, but both are important.
Overall, it's promising to see agreement on these priorities. It's also promising that the really bad ideas, like the Outer Beltway, are left off both lists. Not only is there a growing consensus on top items, but a more and more firmly established stance to move past destructive ideas of the past and look to future solutions.
What do you think of this long list of ideas? What are the best ones? What's missing?