Solving Transportation in Suburban Maryland

This opinion piece was published in the Washington Post on July 28, 2019.

The No. 1 transit problem in Maryland is money


Traffic flows along interchanges that link Interstates 495 and 270 in 2018. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

July 26

Neil H. Harris is a member of the Gaithersburg City Council and a voting member of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments Transportation Planning Board.

Transportation in Maryland is in dire need of an upgrade. But the ongoing politics and a battle between “transit people” and “roads people” is getting in the way of “just need to get there” people. What you’re not hearing is the reason nothing is moving.

There is no money.

The state and counties have little wiggle room in their budgets compared with the costs to improve transportation. There is almost no capacity to borrow more; bonding ability is limited because additional borrowing would lower credit ratings and make borrowing costs unsustainable.

This explains why the currently proposed projects are focused on ways to bring private money to transportation projects. A monorail project on Interstate 270 is being studied because it looks as though a private enterprise could build and operate it without public funding or significant environmental impact, paid for out of the farebox. Highway widening was structured as a public-private partnership because there is no available public money, so private companies were invited in to provide upfront funding and be repaid from toll revenue. The approach can be debated, but in today’s environment, there is a lack of viable alternatives to fund projects.

If we want other, better types of transportation, we’re going to need to follow Steve Jobs’s advice and “think different.”

The proven first step costs nothing, or nearly nothing: Remap our bus routes. Transit ridership is down 12 percent since 2015. And that is true in our region and in most of the country. Two exceptions are Houston and Seattle, where ridership is up. In those areas, bus routes were completely redrawn to reflect current transportation patterns, which are very different from when the routes were conceived. After a minimal period of disruption, while people adjusted to the new routes, ridership increased and travel time decreased.

Transportation is a leading cause of increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Rather than trying to completely change how transportation works, why don’t we make transportation better? Incentives for zero-emission vehicles would continue the ongoing trend of reduction of vehicle emissions (thanks to better fuel efficiency) without requiring a radical change in human behavior. I hope my next car is electric, and so do most people I know. Public policy should make that selection easier through expanding rebates and high-occupancy-lane and toll preferences.

The Virginia authority has designed a smart system that is effective at focusing tax money on programs that provide immediate and long-term benefits. This is new funding that cannot be used to cover existing expenses, and the state and local governments cannot reduce already existing funding. The authority spends most of the funding on regional projects in all modes — transit, pedestrian and bicycle, roads, etc. The remaining funds are given to the local jurisdictions for approved local projects.

Virginia has not solved transportation congestion yet, but it has initiated a large number of projects in a wide variety of transportation modes. Early data is already showing progress.

If we don’t start, we can’t get there.

Today, we are underinvesting in Maryland. We can adapt Virginia’s transportation authority blueprint to fund congestion relief in Montgomery, Prince George’s, Frederick and other counties where congestion and travel times are in crisis.

Today, there is no money.

Until there is money, all we will get is more arguing, politics, and congestion. Our leaders need to work together. We need to re-engineer our bus routes, reduce auto emissions and find fiscally sound ways to get Maryland moving. It’s time to think different.

  • Standard Post
  • Written by voteforneil

Monorail Proposal Video

Curious about Monorail? Here is a video produced about the project to connect Shady Grove with Frederick.

  • Standard Post
  • Written by voteforneil

Better Transit

Rethinking the Bus is a report from the Greater Washington Partnership. It recommends ways to modernize bus service in order to make the system more effective, in light of growing congestion and shrinking transit use.

“…the region as a whole lacks a forward-thinking
strategy to make buses a truly competitive transportation
option. With a new commitment to rethink the bus, the
region could become a national transportation leader with
buses that are fast, frequent, reliable, and easy to use.
Rethinking the bus does not require years of planning;
it can start today. “

Recommendations are:

1. Optimize routes. This worked wonders in Houston and elsewhere.

2. Make space for the bus on the region’s roads. Harder to achieve in crowded roads, but effective where possible.

3. Make boarding faster.

4. Make buses easier to use. Easy to understand route maps and many other suggestions.

5. Measure and report on bus progress. This is critical to any project if you want success — make sure a transparent and accurate measurement system is in place.

http://www.greaterwashingtonpartnership.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/201809_GWP_Issue-Brief_Rethinking-the-Bus.pdf?fbclid=IwAR2Xr0RgBro3gYgdIs9qHS7xxJupts86pLjZB6GWDWyJWxdH1LUth8IkweE

 

  • Standard Post
  • Written by voteforneil

TOWARD COST-EFFECTIVE TRANSPORTATION

 

Transit is much more expensive to build than highways. It’s politically correct to focus on transit. But is it the best use of our tax dollars? Let’s look at the numbers.

Transportation planners in our region look at many. At the most recent Transportation Planning Board (TPB) meeting, there was a presentation on the ways that transportation plans are measured and approved factors – social equity, air quality, and many more. But when I asked if there was a cost-benefit analysis, it became clear that this did not appear to be on anyone’s list of measures.

By cost-benefit, I mean this: when you build a new transportation project, how much money does it cost to move people?

Over the last few weeks, I went back through some presentations and found the two slides shown below that have the numbers to tell an important story. I spent a lunch hour on the phone with TPB staff to verify that what I was seeing was accurate, and what it might mean. Here is what I learned from TPB’s data:

The DMV region plans to spend $42 billion to expand transportation capacity over the next 25 years, split between $27 billion on highway expansion and $15 billion on transit. This will result in 2.7 million more daily trips by auto and 300 thousand more daily trips in transit. By simple arithmetic, this means that it costs just over $10,000 to add capacity for another auto trip, and more than $53,000 to add another transit trip. Building transit capacity currently costs more than 5 times as much as highway capacity!

 

If this was the only factor that was important, then decisions would be easy. Any CEO would immediately allocate more money into adding highway capacity. Of course, it’s not the only factor. Not everyone can afford to travel by auto – we want lower-income people to be able to get to their jobs, so we need transit. Transit trips are less polluting than autos, although TPB’s data shows a steady decrease in auto pollutants thanks to greater efficiency and the growing number of electric, zero-emission vehicles.

The other key is that, for parts of our region, building new roads or even expanding existing ones is terribly difficult. Where would you put a new thoroughfare in DC, or in the close-in suburbs?

The costs I focused on so far are the capital costs for new projects. The same TPB information can be used for operating costs – how much it costs for each trip. It turns out that we’re going to spend $130 billion over the next 25 years on transit operations and repairs, about $5.2 billion annually, with capacity growing to 1.5 million daily trips, for a per-trip cost of about $9.50. Each time someone takes a transit trip, the government subsidizes the trip by that amount. We’ll spend $72 billion to maintain roadways during the same period, about $2.9 billion annually, to move up to 16.6 million trips/day. That comes to just under 50 cents per trip.

The operating cost information is useful in a couple of ways. At the same TPB meeting, the Commuter Connections presentation unveiled a new program, piloted in Howard County MD, where auto commuters can receive a $10 stipend for taking a rider along with them. That number is almost exactly right – it is comparable to the cost of putting someone on transit instead, but we don’t need to build more transit lines.

That is the kind of thinking we need. When we look at a new project or a new idea, does it move people more effectively than how we’re doing it now? Is it better for some reason, is it faster, is it cheaper?

For example, the TPB recently recommended that we find ways to encourage employers to let more people work from home. What if the government provided an incentive to the employers? With these numbers, we can make informed judgments about how much of an incentive makes fiscal sense.

The amount of money we have to transport people is limited, so we need to think carefully about optimization strategies to move people cost-effectively as well as focusing on all the other factors.

Neil Harris is a member of the Gaithersburg City Council and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments Transportation Planning Board.

  • Standard Post
  • Written by voteforneil
  • 1 Comment

U-turns at Quince Orchard HS

The Maryland Department of Transportation has agreed that the morning traffic situation at Quince Orchard High School is an issue that needs remediation. As you can see in the attached letter, MDOT will eliminate morning u-turns at the Copen Meadow intersection.

Additional suggestions were made at this month’s Gaithersburg Transportation Committee meeting and have been presented to QOHS. We will continue to work on improving safety and keep you posted as solutions are implemented.

  • Standard Post
  • Written by voteforneil

New Regional Transportation Plans

These are the new (or changed) projects proposed for Visualize 2045’s constrained element
Posted by TPB NEWS on JANUARY 9, 2018

Here is what is new or changed for Visualize 2045:

In the District of Columbia, six new miles of bicycle lanes throughout the District were submitted. The District is also removing three segments of its streetcar line. Learn more about these and other project changes.

In Maryland there are a range of new proposals from new toll lanes on I-270 and I-495 to a network of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) in Montgomery County. Also included in MDOT’s submissions are road widening, and reconstruction projects for Prince George’s County and Charles County. Learn more about these and other projects.

In Virginia, submissions include a two-mile extension of the I-495 toll lanes to the American Legion Bridge, an auxiliary lane for southbound I-95 in Prince William County, and a road widening project for US 15 in Loudoun County. Learn more about these and other projects.

Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority has also submitted projects for inclusion in Visualize 2045. WMATA has submitted a proposal to run all eight-car trains throughout the system during peak periods. The proposal also includes upgrades to accommodate the higher capacity trains. Learn more about these and other projects.

What happens next?

The public comment period runs until January 13, 2018. At the TPB’s January 17 meeting, staff will present the comments received and the board will consider what is in the plan and how the air quality analysis will be performed. Staff will conduct the air quality and performance analysis during the spring and summer of 2018. In September, the public will have another chance to comment on the plan before the board considers it for final adoption in October.

Visualize 2045 will be a different kind of long-range plan for the region. One piece, the constrained element, is federally required and will include all the projects, programs and policies that are expected to be funded through 2045. Visualize 2045 will also include unfunded projects and priority aspirational elements including the five initiatives identified by the TPB’s Long-Range Plan Task Force, plus bicycle and pedestrian, freight elements, and more.

The first step is to develop the constrained element. The projects, programs, and policies submitted by the agencies must also be analyzed for their effect on the region’s air quality. To allow time for staff to conduct the analysis, all these inputs must be submitted at this time.

  • Standard Post
  • Written by voteforneil

Visualize 2045: A new long-range transportation plan for the National Capital Region

What’s in the plan?

Visualize 2045 will be a different kind of long-range plan for the region. One piece, the constrained element, is federally required and will include all the projects, programs and policies that are expected to be funded through 2045. Visualize 2045 will also include unfunded projects and priority aspirational elements including the five initiatives identified by the TPB’s Long-Range Plan Task Force, plus bicycle and pedestrian, freight elements, and more.

The first step is to develop the constrained element. The projects, programs, and policies submitted by the agencies must also be analyzed for their effect on the region’s air quality. To allow time for staff to conduct the analysis, all these inputs must be submitted at this time.

What’s new?

The new submissions build on hundreds of other projects contained in the 2016 amendment to the Constrained Long-Range Transportation Plan (CLRP). The public is welcome to comment on any of the projects submitted for air quality analysis.

Here is what is new or changed for Visualize 2045:

In the District of Columbia, six new miles of bicycle lanes throughout the District were submitted. The District is also removing three segments of its streetcar line. Learn more about these and other project changes.

In Maryland there is a range of new proposals from new toll lanes on I-270 and I-495 to a network of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) in Montgomery County. Also included in MDOT’s submissions are road widening, and reconstruction projects for Prince George’s County and Charles County. Learn more about these and other project changes.

In Virginia, submissions include a two-mile extension of the I-495 toll lanes to the American Legion Bridge, an auxiliary lane for southbound I-95 in Prince William County, and a road widening project for US 15 in Loudoun County. Learn more about these and other project changes.

Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority has also submitted projects for inclusion in Visualize 2045. WMATA has submitted a proposal to run all eight-car trains throughout the system during peak periods. The proposal also includes upgrades to accommodate the higher capacity trains. Learn more about these and other project changes.

What happens next?

The public comment period runs until January 13, 2018. At the TPB’s January 17 meeting, staff will present the comments received and the board will consider what is in the plan and how the air quality analysis will be performed. Staff will conduct the air quality and performance analysis during the spring and summer of 2018. In September, the public will have another chance to comment on the plan before the board considers it for final adoption in October.

Stay connected

Learn about key public input opportunities, decision points, and new data and analysis as it becomes available. Sign up for email updates and follow #VIZ2045 on Twitter.

Visualize 2045 is being developed by the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board, the federally designated metropolitan planning organization (MPO) for metropolitan Washington. The TPB is housed at and staffed by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG).

Link to more information: http://www.mwcog.org/visualize2045/

  • Standard Post
  • Written by voteforneil

New Plans for Transportation — Getting Us Moving

This week, the region’s Transportation Planning Board endorsed 5 initiatives out of the 10 that were part of its research designed by its Long Range Plan Task Force. Now comes the hard part.

Each of these initiatives would improve transportation in the region by reducing congestion, improving reliability, and shortening travel times. But only if they are implemented as designed and not compromised.

The policy endorsed by TPB that offers the biggest benefit is changing land use policies throughout the region. The recommendation: change where new houses and new offices will be built. Housing needs to move inward, from the outer suburbs to the inner ones, shortening commutes – and increasing the supply of housing to match demand, which will make the new houses more affordable for new homeowners. Our officials and planners will need the will to focus on more dense developments close to jobs or to transportation convenient to jobs. If each locality refuses to allow sufficient new housing stock, then we’ll get more sprawl and more traffic.

The second biggest impact would come from employer-based travel demand management policies, encouraging people to telecommute or to promote more efficient travel times and modes. The key to making this work is for policies to reward good behavior, and the danger is the temptation to build systems focusing on penalties. It’s been suggested that we dramatically limit parking or impose high tolls. More effective methods like subsidies or tax breaks are more likely to succeed and less likely to risk voter rebellion.

Transit in dedicated transitways is another important initiative. This could be bus rapid transit, light rail, Metrorail, commuter rail, etc. The key to keeping these effective is dedicated lanes – we’re already seeing BRT initiatives moving into mixed traffic. What is Bus Rapid Transit when you move the vehicles into mixed traffic and off of dedicated transitways? Um… it’s a bus. And it’s not rapid. The region has been investing in more transit even though transit usage is steadily declining. We need better transit, not the same old.

I am encouraged by the progress TPB has made during the three years I’ve been a member of its board. We explored a variety of ideas and performed the research to model the results and make good selections. Implementing these without losing the core that makes them function is the work ahead.

  • Standard Post
  • Written by voteforneil

Improving Regional Transportation

 

The Long-Range Plan Task Force recommends 5 ideas

 

At the final meeting of the TPB’s Long Range Plan Task Force, the group recommended that five of 10 transportation initiatives, analyzed for their ability to improve the performance of the region’s transportation system, be sent to the TPB for endorsement on December 20.

The task force worked hard to come to consensus around these five initiatives; the group met 10 times over 9 months and participated in hours of discussion.

Their work began less than a year ago, and started with first identifying the region’s biggest transportation challenges.
The analysis indicated that each of the ten initiatives had some potential to improve the regional transportation system’s performance and to address one or more of the region’s major transportation challenges. The analysis also demonstrated that none of the 10 initiatives would address all the region’s transportation challenges.

Armed with this information, the task force next identified which of the 10 initiatives to recommend to the TPB for endorsement. As it selected initiatives for its recommendation, the task force considered several factors in addition to the technical results of the analysis. These included public support and implementation feasibility, ability to address mobility and accessibility disparities between the eastern and western parts of the region, and implementation costs.

The final meeting began with a straw poll to see which initiatives rose to the top for the group. Five initiatives clearly had the most support.

The five initiatives

Regional Express Travel Network: The region would have an extensive network of express toll lanes on existing highways. These lanes would use dynamic tolls to maintain desired travel speeds and be free to carpoolers and transit vehicles. New express bus service connecting Activity Centers would also travel on the network.

Regionwide Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and Transitways: BRT, transitway, and streetcar routes that are in jurisdictions’ plans but not yet in the TPB’s long-range plan would be added at various locations throughout the region. This initiative would also improve pedestrian access to transit stations and increase the amount of jobs and housing around the transit stations.

Metrorail Core Capacity Improvements: This initiative includes running eight-car trains exclusively on all Metrorail lines—replacing six-car trains entirely. It would also add a second Rosslyn station, and a new rail line across the Potomac River connecting the District and Virginia through Georgetown to Union Station towards Waterfront. It also would add better bicycle and pedestrian access to rail stations.

Optimize Regional Land-Use Balance: This initiative would optimize the balance of jobs and housing region-wide. The idea is to increase jobs and housing around underused rail stations and Activity Centers with high-capacity transit. Plus, it would encourage building additional housing in the region to match employment projections.

Employer-Based Travel Demand Management Policies: New policies would increase teleworking regionwide and increase the number of employees receiving transit and carpool subsidies. This initiative would also increase the price for most of the parking for work-trips in Activity Centers.

A TPB endorsement of any of the initiatives will allow the TPB to include these initiatives as the aspirational element of TPB’s long-range transportation plan, Visualize 2045. An endorsement would also move the ideas forward so TPB member agencies could study them in more depth. However, a TPB endorsement would not mandate member jurisdictions to alter their own local plans, programs, or policies or to design, fund, and implement these initiatives without further study.

The five recommended initiatives are all broad concepts. With more detailed collaborative study, TPB member agencies could implement these ideas themselves or collectively.
Task force members discussed the five initiatives

To come to consensus and better understand their decisions, task force members discussed the five initiatives. They talked through their lingering concerns and asked questions of each other to understand different opinions.

The task force discussed the challenges in securing the funding and broad support to implement some of the strongest ideas. The regional land-use optimization initiative was one.

Task force and TPB member Ron Meyer, noting that land-use planning is within the authority of the local governments, wondered how a regional body could do that. “My question is the how? What can we do about it as the TPB?”
Meyer also asked how much of a shift in jobs and housing between jurisdictions would have to happen to implement such an initiative and what it would mean for local jurisdictions.

TPB staff director Kanti Srikanth explained that one of the significant elements of this initiative is adding additional housing in the region to accommodate the workers needed to fill the jobs being forecast. “More people are coming and we need to plan for them,” he said. “Jurisdictions will need to add more households around existing and planned transit stations.”

Srikanth also noted that the initiative’s overall objective is balancing jobs and housing in the best way this can be achieved.

Task force and TPB member Neil Harris noted that some of the concepts have been examined and pursued to some degree in the past. He talked about earlier regional planning strategies, like the 1964 Wedges and Corridors plan, that focused on anticipated growth to the year 2000. “I think it’s time for this region to look at the next 50 years,” he said. “We need to have that discussion. To me, it’s a big set of questions and a discussion to start having over the next 10 years.”

By the end of the discussion, with no dissent, the task force agreed to recommend the five initiatives to the TPB for endorsement.

“The task force’s work in reaching broad agreement on a set of recommendations is a significant example of regional collaboration,” said task force chairman and TPB vice-chairman Jay Fisette. “Our work indicates that we must move past our focus on projects alone, and include more strategic and sustained work on policy changes, particularly on land-use and travel demand management, to truly reduce congestion and enhance regional mobility. The recommended initiatives rose to the top for having the most potential to improve the performance of the region’s transportation system and deserve to be comprehensively examined for implementation.”

The TPB will consider endorsing these five initiatives at its December 20 meeting.

http://www.tpbne.ws/…/the-long-range-plan-task-force-recom…/

  • Standard Post
  • Written by voteforneil