It could get much worse for drivers in the D.C. area before it gets better.
As the Washington region’s population and employment grow, traffic congestion will worsen and the percentage of all daily trips taken using transit will remain at seven percent through 2040, according to a forecast by transportation planners at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG).
But the “financially constrained” forecast is based on the possibility Congress will not continue to fund Metro’s rehabilitation, maintenance, and expansion beyond 2020, leading transit advocates to label it a technical analysis rather than a vision of what policy makers want for the region.
The long range transportation forecast combines travel data from three regions: the regional core of D.C., Alexandria, and Arlington; the inner suburbs of Fairfax, Montgomery, and Prince George’s Counties; and the outer suburbs of Charles, Frederick, Loudoun, and Prince William Counties.
The forecast seems to indicate congestion-weary commuters are doomed to a future of gridlock, especially those living in the suburbs, but the Council’s mass transit proponents and smart growth advocates say the report fails to take into account the rise of transit-oriented development.
Without substantial investments in mass transit, including Metro’s move to using only eight-car trains during rush hours, the number of roadway lane miles that will be congested during the morning commute will increase by 71 percent, the forecast said. The increase in demand on the region’s roadways is expected to outpace the supply of new lanes.
“It is an open question. That’s the point. Those are choices that we make,” said Chris Zimmerman, an Arlington County board member and longtime transit advocate who also sits on the Council’s board. “We can choose not to do things that will make our lives better.”
Metro’s 10-year, $3 billion funding program expires in 2020. MWCOG’s transportation planners say Congress should begin planning to reauthorize the funding now. When this possible financial constraint is lifted from the forecast, there is an increase of 32,000 daily transit work trips by 2040, bringing the commuting mode share for transit up from 24 to 25 percent.
“The problem is getting the financial commitments by the state, local, and federal governments to maintain the Metrorail system, and allow the expansion to eight-car trains and additional station improvements,” said Robert Griffiths, the acting co-director of transportation planning at MWCOG.
Without additional railcars beyond those currently funded, all Metro lines entering the regional core will become congested by 2040, the forecast said. The report assumes only 50 percent of trains will have eight cars instead of six during morning rush hour by 2040.
Commuters want choices
Where commuters have choices, car dependency shrinks and mode shifting away from the automobile is expected to grow. In the regional core 43 percent of all trips are walking, biking, or transit. By 2040 that figure is expected to grow to 47 percent. In the outer suburbs, however, only eight percent of all trips currently are walking, biking, or transit, and the forecast predicts that figure will rise to ten percent.
“The data show how effective the planning in Arlington, Alexandria, and D.C. has been in terms of reducing the number of auto trips,” said Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. “The long range forecast in the region’s transportation plan doesn’t show enough gains for transit between now and 2040. That is because [MWCOG planners] are not recognizing and modeling enough of the same types of changes in the suburbs of Fairfax, Montgomery, and Prince George’s that we have already seen in Arlington, Alexandria, and the District. But more of that is coming.”
“You have 15 Metro stations at Prince George’s ripe for development right now. And every person who lives and works in a transit-oriented center is a transportation solution for our region,” Schwartz added.
The Council’s Griffiths said areas that saw a combination of improvements experienced less bumper-to-bumper traffic.
“We did see in the analysis of the plan there were segments of I-270, I-66, and the Dulles Toll Road where we actually had reductions in congestion. And those were places where we had multi-modal improvements. It was some highway improvements, some HOV lanes, and also transit.”
Follow the money
If the decisions of commercial real estate developers are any indication of where the region’s future lies, transit advocates may be right.
“Land use is a transportation strategy. In the Washington metropolitan area with five million square feet of [commercial] development under construction right now, 84 percent of that is… within one-quarter mile of a Metro station,” Zimmerman said.
The forecast suggests reducing car dependency in the Washington metro area must remain a priority. Under current financial constraints, the Council’s forecast predicts the accessibility to jobs by transit will increase, but will stay significantly lower than by car. The average number of jobs accessible within 45 minutes by transit is expected to grow from 412 million to 516 million by 2040.