Photo by Civil War Preservation Trust on Flickr.

In our last post, we talked about the top 5 smart growth victories of 2010. More and more people are looking for vibrant, mixed-use neighborhoods where walking, biking, and transit are real options.

In the year ahead, will our leaders maintain the momentum for smart growth? Or will they make decisions that mean a return to sprawling development, more traffic, higher energy use and the continuation of the east-west economic divide?

Our pick for the top threat of 2011: Location decisions made in a vacuum, as highlighted in this Post story. These decisions include BRAC, Science City, and other government, corporate, university and hospital location decisions that lack adequate transit, increase traffic, and are simply unaffordable and unsustainable. Couple this with the push in Maryland and Virginia to spend billions more on highways that don’t reduce congestion, and we have a recipe for more sprawl.

Our one wish for 2011: That officials and civic and business leaders will continue to implement transit-oriented communities with better linkages between jobs and housing, invest more in transit, walking and bicycling, and set us firmly on a course to become the most energy efficient, and environmentally and fiscally sustainable region in the nation.

With all those things in mind, here are what we see as the biggest opportunities and challenges in 2011:

The Region: The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) made great strides with its Region Forward sustainability plan and studies (study one and study two PDFs) that show a network of walkable/bikeable, transit-oriented centers reduces the amount we have to drive and offers more options for getting around. Two things need to happen in 2011:

  1. COG’s update to its Regional Activity Centers has to focus on transit-oriented centers, revitalization of older commercial corridors, and walkable urban design.
  2. We have to stop stapling together state transportation project wish-lists and instead produce a plan based on the transportation projects that meet COG’s sustainability goals.

Meanwhile, expect John “Til” Hazel’s 2030 Group to announce a renewed push for an outer beltway, for a regional transportation authority led by unaccountable appointees, and for dedicating more funding to highways, not transit.

Focus has to instead be on adequate funding for Metro and other transit, maintenance and operations of our existing roads and transit, and those new projects that best support transit-oriented, energy efficient development patterns. We also hope our local officials will maintain a central role in governing Metro and that the attempt to shift power to less-transit friendly state authorities in Virginia fails.

Prince George’s County: With new, reform-minded leadership at the helm, we look forward to progress on a number of fronts. Certainly we’d like to see implementation of the housing reforms highlighted in our Building Stronger Communities report. We also have high hopes that all sectors are coming together to make transit-oriented development happen at Prince George’s 15 underutilized Metro stations, as highlighted in our Invest Prince George’s report.

Governor O’Malley, Metro, Prince George’s officials, the business and smart growth communities, and the federal General Services Administration are coming together to finally get TOD on track in Prince George’s. Among the new initiatives is the federal Housing and Urban Development grant for planning redevelopment along the southern Green Line Metro corridor to Branch Avenue.

TOD and moving forward with the Purple Line must be a higher priority than the types of sprawling, traffic generating developments recently approved outside the Beltway in Prince George’s. Concurrently, we hope to see a more transparent, unbiased, and consistent approach to development review to give the public and private sectors greater confidence in the process, and attract more investment.

Montgomery County: A pioneering leader in planning for transit-oriented development, preservation of agricultural land, and inclusionary zoning for affordable housing, Montgomery County often seems pulled in different directions today.

Major highway expansion is proposed including widening I-270 at a cost of $3.4 billion, extending the Mid-County Highway and building the 28/198 connection (ICC 2?), and development approvals have included both the transit-oriented White Flint and the far flung “Science City.” And with a new upcounty hospital proposed, will it be in a walkable, mixed-use center?

In 2011 we need to ensure that transit-oriented development returns as the top priority for funding and incentives, that more jobs are encouraged at transit-oriented locations on the underserved east side of the county, that the Purple Line and a set of bus-priority corridors moves forward, and that the Agricultural Reserve receives expanded protection and investment in value-added production.

The county’s Department of Transportation will need to be more supportive of complete streets, local street networks and transit-oriented communities.

Fairfax County: We’re all excited that the Tysons Corner Plan passed, but now it’s time to get moving. We need to get the urban design details right, to make sure Tysons is a great place for pedestrian life at the street level. Routes 7 and 123 are still planned as 8-lane virtual highways through the heart of Tysons. We urgently need to shift to a boulevard design.

The “Future of Fairfax” and other area counties will be found in the vast parking lots of their strip commercial corridors. These are the places where we can create walkable communities that absorb growth while protecting suburban neighborhoods, protecting forests and streams, and reducing traffic.

We hope the County will move forward with a major vision-planning initiative for Route 1, linking transit, land use, housing, economic development and the environment. Investment initiatives also need to accelerate for Springfield, Bailey’s Crossroads, Annandale, Seven Corners and Merrifield.

New county directors of planning and transportation will be hired. They need to be committed leaders in implementing smart growth and transit-oriented communities.

Loudoun, Prince William, Frederick and Charles Counties: The real estate crisis hit the outer counties hard and the powerful demographic and market shifts seen by the real estate industry (PDF) could mean more challenges ahead. Market demand for large suburban houses in distant locations will remain weak.

The key to future competitiveness is protecting invaluable scenic and historic landscapes, restoring historic downtowns, and creating a few mixed-use, walkable centers in the right places. Examples include Loudoun’s two future Metro stations, Woodbridge, Manassas and the Innovation center in Prince William, continued revitalization of downtown Frederick, and the mixed-use plan for Waldorf’s sprawling commercial strip corridor.

Unfortunately, both Loudoun and Prince William counties are on course to plan and approve far too many centers than the market can support. Loudoun also proposes an unaffordable $2 billion road expansion plan. Prince William keeps pushing for the Outer Beltway. They call it their “road to Dulles,” but it lands miles west of Dulles whose entrance is on the east side.

The highway, called the Tri-County Parkway, 234 Bypass, Battlefield Bypass and Western Bypass, would destroy the setting of Manassas National Battlefield on the eve of the 150-year anniversary of two of the most significant battles of the Civil War. We should focus should instead on street networks for local activity and on transit investments for the radial commuting corridors of I-95 and I-66. VRE, HOV/slugging, and rapid bus transit are the keys to accomplishing these goals, not necessarily the conversion to private toll roads as proposed by the state.

District of Columbia: A lot of people are wondering if the new mayor and council will continue the momentum started by the last two administrations for cyclists, pedestrians and transit users. These progressive policies not only need to continue, but they must benefit all areas of the District, including east of the Anacostia. DC’s economic competitiveness and ability to attract people from around the world is tied to its expanding sustainable transportation and planning initiatives.

Ensuring that there are affordable housing and job benefits from major projects like waterfront revitalization and St. Elizabeth’s development should be a top priority. Protecting the social safety net, continuing education initiatives, and restoring and expanding affordable housing programs are essential.

The city’s housing trust fund needs to be restored, affordable units preserved, and new affordable workforce housing built in conjunction with new development. D.C. is emerging as one of the world’s great, diverse and green cities. Let’s ensure everyone benefits.

Arlington, Alexandria, College Park, Rockville, Falls Church and more: Arlington County continues its cutting-edge sustainable growth and Alexandria plans a transit future. Meanwhile, many of the smaller cities and towns within our region share similar goals.

Our historic towns have the fabric to support the sort of walkable, bikeable and transit-accessible communities that are so much in demand, but they need to welcome development designed to the right form and scale, invest in “complete street” networks, adopt the right parking policies, and ensure the right mix of uses.

Do these communities have adequate funding support from the states and the flexibility they need from state and local departments of transportation? There’s Route 1 in College Park, Broad Street in Falls Church, Rockville Pike, Maple Street in Vienna, Old Town City of Fairfax and their Route 50 “Boulevard,” and more. Will 2011 be the year where we solve the puzzle and move forward with the right development and transportation solutions?

Will we see more smart growth or more sprawl? What do you think?

Stewart Schwartz is Executive Director and a founder of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, which he built into the leading smart growth organization in the Washington, DC region, addressing the interconnected issues of land use, transportation, urban design, housing, and energy. A retired Navy Captain with 24 years of active and reserve service, he earned a BA and JD from the University of Virginia and an MA from Georgetown University.