Photo by poeloq on Flickr.

The 2030 Group, an advocacy organization funded by some of Virginia’s longtime proponents of sprawl-inducing highway development, came out with a thoroughly unsurprising “survey” today that recommends the very same projects the organizers have pushed for years.

The campaign engaged two of the region’s biggest advocates for the unpopular Outer Beltway, Bob Chase and Rich Parsons, to conduct what they call a “groundbreaking” survey. Chase and Parsons then selected and interviewed 45 unnamed “transportation experts.”

It should come as no surprise that these anonymous experts generally shared the exact transportation priority agenda that Chase and Parsons have less anonymously been already promoting: a new circumferential freeway that will do nothing to solve the real mobility problems in the area.

The 2030 Group’s high-powered PR firm, Dewey Square, touted the report yesterday in a press release that this would be “a first-ever comprehensive study of the most critical transportation priorities.” But the survey does not actually study the transportation priorities. Instead, it only takes a poll of some anonymous people and then advocates for setting priorities on that basis.

In other news, a groundbreaking poll of “transportation experts” I just polled via Gmail Chat overwhelmingly agreed that a different set of priorities is more appropriate.

Chase and Parsons call for “performance-based measures” for transportation projects over “parochialism and politics.” Absolutely. But as we’ve seen with the debates in Congress, the devil is in choosing the right measures.

Developers who own land far from people’s jobs have been long promoting a “congestion” metric, which measures only the speed of automotive traffic, not the length of people’s commutes. The Obama administration, meanwhile, has been working on more comprehensive “livability” standards which look at the actual quality of life that results from transportation investment, not just the net increase in paved miles.

Far better studies of regional priorities include those from the Council of Governments, whose scenario studies looked not only at vehicle speeds but overall land use and found that the biggest gains in improving commutes came from responsible land use, like developing underutilized Metro stations, addressing the east-west job divide in the region, and revitalizing existing, aging commercial corridors.

The COG Region Forward report, which all 22 area jurisdictions endorsed, shows that addressing land use and the imbalance between jobs and housing, along with supportive transit and transit-oriented development, are the top priorities. COG’s scenario studies demonstrated that better land use planning offers the biggest bang for the buck in reducing the amount we have to drive.

These initiatives, as it happens, also involved many people who haven’t already placed themselves at one extreme end of the spectrum on our region’s transportation debate.

It’s laughably easy to find ridiculous methodological holes in the survey. For example, only 9% of the experts are from DC despite there being a far greater share of commuting activity to, from, and within DC.

The anonymous so-called-experts first list of priorities put transit first. But then, Chase and Parsons asked them to pick “the single most important” project. That wording inherently steers people’s thinking to “megaprojects,” single large facilities like roads or whole new transit lines instead of the real places that can have the most bang for the buck, like local streetcar lines, roundabouts to smooth traffic, infill rail stations, bus priority, ped/bike investments and more.

But there should be no need to even enumerate the transparent lengths to which the authors go to steer conclusions toward their own preconceived ends. Regional leaders should laugh at this report simply because it pawns off an survey of 45 anonymous people handpicked by Chase and Parsons as the “First Ever Comprehensive Regional Transportation Study.”

One useful nugget in the report is a list of current regional priorities, as some of the respondents saw it. For those of us who have monitored transportation planning in the region, these are indeed the projects state and local officials mention most often.

  1. Corridor Cities Transitway
  2. Purple Line
  3. BRT or express bus network
  4. I-270 HOT lanes
  5. I-495 HOT lanes
  6. MARC service expansion
  7. Metro core capacity expansion
  8. Metro system maintenance
  9. DC streetcars
  10. Silver Line

This list is Maryland-heavy, and Chase and Parsons note that more of their Maryland participants could identify clear priorities. (DC also has clear priorities, but they had relatively few DC participants, pushing its projects low on the overall list).

Chase and Parsons say this means the region lacks a clear set of priorities, and therefore everyone should adopt their priorities. But elected officials and staffs spend considerable time every year developing detailed priority lists to go into the region’s Constrained Long-Range Plan. Virginia created the Transaction 2030 plan a few years ago and is working on an update, Transaction 2040.

That report lists far more than 3 or 4 megaprojects, because a few huge projects don’t do much to really address transportation. Northern Virginia is a big place, and really improving mobility involves many smaller projects, addressing individual road bottlenecks, adding options like transit, carpooling, walking and bicycling, and maintaining our existing roads and transit so maintenance breakdowns don’t happen and cause delays.

Virginia’s priorities also feel more muddled today because local governments and current Secretary of Transportation don’t agree on what the priorities should be. They should continue to debate the issues and work toward consensus. Chase, Parsons and their deep-pocketed funders, who would personally benefit from more sprawling development in outer areas, are just frustrated that this process of discussion isn’t coalescing around the agenda they happen to have.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). 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 in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.