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Car Travel Will Continue To Dominate Regional Economy, Study Says

Mass transit advocates rebuff findings of study

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Investments in projects like the Silver Line extend the reach of a mass transportation, but a George Mason study maintains that cars will continue to dominate into the future.
Rebecca Cooper
Investments in projects like the Silver Line extend the reach of a mass transportation, but a George Mason study maintains that cars will continue to dominate into the future.

For the thousands of commuters who spend too much of their lives sitting in traffic on the Washington area's hopelessly congested roads, the future may not look much better than the present. Despite some large investments in mass transit projects, like the Silver Line rail link to Dulles Airport, about three-fourths of all economic activity — from shopping to commuting to work — will be the result of automobile trips in 2040, virtually unchanged from present day, according to a report by the George Mason University Center for Regional Analysis (pdf).

Critics question where growth will be centered

In 2007, 74 percent of gross regional product (GRP), a measure of all income, was the result of car travel. By 2040 it will be 73 percent, according to the study's authors, who forecast total GRP by that year to potentially amount to $1.8 trillion, up from the current $429 billion. The projections are based on where the study places the region's major job centers: in the outer suburbs, implying that a regime of road building will be necessary to accommodate the region's growth.

The study, prepared for a group of real estate developers, is flawed, according to mass transit advocates.

"I think it is out of sync with changing demographics and the huge market demand to live not just in the city but to live in neighborhoods that are walkable and near transit," says Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. "This is a report that seems to, through some magic they have applied, allocate significant portions of regional growth to outer suburban job centers. They are arguing for more highway investment over transit investment in the region."

The study designates the Tysons Corner-Dulles corridor as the most prominent "activity center" that will see significant changes in transportation use, thanks to the arrival of the Silver Line, but the overall forecast allows for minor shifts in mode changes, including bicycling/walking. Schwartz says the forecast overlooks surging demand for living in urban, walkable places.

"We are changing our land uses and have shown that compact, walkable neighborhoods with transit generate far fewer car trips and shorter car travel distances," he says. "A younger generation is driving less, living in city and an older generation of downsizing empty-nesters and retirees will not be driving as much. They are out of touch with the trends. They are trying to justify more outer suburban growth," referring to suburban real estate developers in the 2030 Group, who commissioned the study.

Mass transit or highways, not enough infrastructure investment

Whatever transportation infrastructure will be necessary for the expected population and job growth, current levels of government investment are grossly inadequate, according to Bob Chase, the president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, a group that supports highway construction.

"What the study shows is that most of the economic activity centers are heavily dependent upon a good road network, but roads also move buses. It's not just about cars," Chase said. "We're not going to have the transportation network to support that type of economy. If we don't invest more in transportation, we're not likely to have the economic future that most people would want."

One possible source of funds would be an increased state and/or federal gas tax, something few politicians are willing to publicly endorse given high gasoline prices in Virginia, Maryland, and D.C. Adjusted for inflation and improved automobile fuel efficiency, the current federal gas tax of 18 cents per gallon is virtually valueless compared to its worth in 1993, the last year Congress increased it.

"The cost of construction and the cost of maintenance have gone up. The cost of just petroleum products that go into asphalt has gone up 350% in the last ten years," Chase says. "If you want to have a strong economy, if you want to have jobs for your kids, you need to make a greater investment in transportation, and the failure to do so is going to cost every person far more in terms of lost wages, lost opportunities, and a deteriorated quality of life, than paying a few more pennies on the gas tax."

Chase says Virginia and Maryland could also raise sales taxes or create surcharges on income taxes to pay for infrastructure investment.

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