(Originally published on the Washington Post, July 8, 2016, Stuart M Whitaker)
Two transportation mistakes generating frequent headlines are the condition of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority's Metrorail system, which has resulted in deaths and delays, and the performance of the Silver Line, which has attracted 30 percent fewer riders than had been promised. The mistakes are different in each case. Metro's mistake was failing to maintain the system. The Silver Line mistake was a failure to understand transportation demand.
The next mistake would be the approval by the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority of Transform 66 Outside the Beltway (OTB), a $2 billion plan to build toll lanes on Interstate 66 Outside the Beltway. The idea for Transform 66 didn't originate in Northern Virginia - it was proposed and is being heavily promoted by the administration of Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D). Although the administration said it would be privately financed, the project would require up to $600 million in state and local funds. Officials can and should refuse to provide this funding. Here's why:
* This project doesn't serve the region's primary transportation goal, developed and agreed upon by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, to "provide reasonable access at reasonable cost to everyone in the region." A recent NVTA survey found that "reducing travel time best motivates interest and support among residents." While some people complain about how long it takes to commute by automobile, commuting by public transit often not only takes far longer but also sometimes isn't an option. Travel during rush hour by Metrorail generally takes longer than by auto, and travel by bus takes even longer. We should invest in the transportation infrastructure that needs it the most, and that is public transit.
* Our transportation system is composed of highways, public transit, commuter rail, walkways and bikeways. People choose various modes of transportation according to the advantages of each relative to each other. One reason the Silver Line in particular and public transit in general isn't more heavily used is that people find driving more attractive despite all the complaints about traffic congestion.
The Virginia Department of Transportation forecasts that eastbound morning speeds on the proposed I-66 toll lanes would be at least 65 mph, up from 40 mph today. This would make driving even more attractive relative to public transit, bringing more cars on the road while reducing public transit use. Despite repeated requests, VDOT has failed to provide any estimate of the impact of this project on public transit ridership in the I-66 corridor (much less on the Silver Line).
* Not only would this project serve to reduce public transit use in general, but also the draft comprehensive agreement to build the toll lanes contains a provision that would effectively prohibit improving public transit by extending the Orange Line. VDOT and the prospective private-sector investors are working together to ensure that more and better public transit isn't able to compete with auto use. This is not in the public's interest nor what the public wants. Even people who don't take public transit benefit from its use because more people riding public transit means fewer cars on the road.
* Transform 66 is just one of 24 projects comprising a total price tag of $668 million being considered by the NVTA. With an annual budget of just $300 million, the NVTA would have to issue bonds to finance Transform 66. Borrowing money for this project would mean that the NVTA would have less money to invest in real terms to improve transportation.
* Transportation has undergone tremendous change over the past decade, with the development of GPS technology, Uber and Lyft, Zipcar and Enterprise CarShare, smartphones, Google Maps and Waze, electric cars, WiFi and 4G data communications. We can't see the future with certainty, but there is no reason to think that transportation won't change as much over the next decade. This project would create a 50-year partnership that would survive long past my lifetime and lock our children and grandchildren into an auto-dependent transportation model from the Eisenhower administration.
The NVTA should not select this project.