Washington Outer Beltway and I-495 BRT Have Benefits

Last Week transportation reporter Martin Di Caro of Metro Connection received a dressing down by David Alpert of Greater Greater Washington. Alpert argued in a column that Di Caro’s transportation article was one sided. Specifically, Alpert took notion with the idea that an Outer Beltway or other arterial highway could solve congestion in the Washington area. Other environmental and smart growth advocates issued similar critiques.

Alpert accurately highlighted some of the shortcomings of the article. He was honest in noting that all of his articles are opinions and in detailing the difference between editorials and objective news coverage. I also agree with him about the quality of transportation coverage. Washington DC is fortunate to have dedicated, knowledgeable transportation reporters such as Robert Thompson of the Washington Post. But transportation is not as big a priority as issues such as taxes or defense. Sometimes transportation beat reporters are just passing through to other more lucrative positions. Most of the DC media tries very hard to offer balanced transportation coverage; but transportation is often the red headed stepchild.

However, I think there are several good reasons that Albert is not considering for building a parallel expressway. While some pro-highway groups can serve as boosters for new roads that may not be justified, some environmental groups are just as guilty of bias. Environmental groups have delayed many needed highways with minimal environmental impacts.

Yes, new highways do induce demand. But that does not mean highways should never be built. A highway linking western Fairfax and western Montgomery could also serve drivers trying to avoid the Capital Beltway. As Alpert notes the Capital Beltway does not serve its original purpose. As many commuters travel from one location along the Beltway to another, travelers trying to bypass Washington D.C. become stuck in the 4-hour morning and 5-hour afternoon rush-hour traffic jams.

New highways do not necessarily induce new development. Several steps can be taken to lessen this phenomenon. First, the number of exits can be limited. Much of the new development occurs near exits because highways offer quick access between existing jobs and new residences. Second, the exits can be placed in areas that are already developed. Small existing communities are prevalent in Western Fairfax and Western Montgomery counties.

Further, Washington is a growing metro area. While some new residents move to the District, Bethesda, or Tysons Corner those locations are not right for everybody. Some residents prefer to live outside the beltway or in the exurbs; others cannot afford to live close-in. Proclaiming that we are never ever going to build new highways is “solutionism” where one solution is the answer for every problem. It is no better a policy than deciding to build new highways everywhere, wherever there is a slight amount of traffic congestion.

The region absolutely needs better transit solutions between Bethesda and Tysons Corner. The challenge is finding the best solution. In many corridors it is bus-rapid-transit (BRT) and not rail. BRT runs managed lanes such as high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) or high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes. In addition to providing operating space for reliable, cost-effective and attractive transit, managed lanes encourage carpooling and vanpooling. Virginia will allow single person vehicles to use the managed lanes providing they pay a small toll. However the tolls will rise and fall with congestion to ensure buses will always travel at 45 miles per hour or higher. Virginia is building managed lanes from I-95 to The Dulles Greenway. Maryland is studying the system. A managed lanes system from The Dulles Greenway to I-270 could be operational in less than ten years.

In many situations the solution is not rail. The most recent cost estimate for Maryland’s proposed purple line from Bethesda to New Carrolton is almost $2 billion. While Maryland is hoping that the federal government will pick up half the tab, opposition to the route and the cost continues to grow. A deluxe BRT system would cost less than a third of the light-rail line. The BRT system would also cost about $10 million less per year to operate. More details on why BRT is a better choice for that corridor are available here.

Unfortunately, many urban interstates were built through low-income minority neighborhoods. Routes were built in these locations because land prices were the cheapest and opposition the least well organized. In addition highways were used for socially nefarious goals. While urban interstate construction was often curtailed for good reasons, DC never built a highway network. As a result there are a limited number of ways for traveling in the DC region. The Potomac River and the lack of interjurisdictional cooperation further increase congestion. While it is much more challenging to build a new highway now than it was 40 years ago, a well-placed new expressway could provide many benefits.