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D.C. Area's Transportation Future: Crowding, Crowding And More Crowding

Council of governments releases 30-year transportation forecast

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Traffic congestion and crowding on public transportation will only increase as the D.C. region's population and employment rises over the next three decades, according to a new forecast. 
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Traffic congestion and crowding on public transportation will only increase as the D.C. region's population and employment rises over the next three decades, according to a new forecast. 

Without major investments in infrastructure and better land use policies, the D.C. region faces a future of even worse crowding on highways and trains, according to a long-range transportation forecast by a regional planning group.

The forecast, released Wednesday by transportation planners at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG), predicts that the region's population will grow by 24 percent and the area will add 1.1 million jobs during the next three decades. As a result, transit and roadway congestion will increase despite the expected billions of dollars  of planned investments during that time frame.

"We've had a long period of time of inadequate funding for transportation," said Ron Kirby, the director of the council’s department of transportation planning and one of the authors of the report. The forecast was based on statistics and projections provided each of MWCOG's member jurisdictions.

Congestion will increase on transit and highways

Metro is one example. The system has undertaken a multi-billion-dollar rehabilitation project — but that plan does not include the addition of more rail cars. 

"Perhaps less well known is the lack of capacity expansion. We haven’t gotten to eight-car trains on Metro rail,” Kirby said. Even if all Metro trains had eight cars by 2040, the Orange, Yellow, and Green lines would still be congested, according to the forecast.

The forecast for the region’s highways is also depressing. Morning congestion traveling in the direction of the region’s core will worsen along most of the major thoroughfares. 

"There's been relatively limited new highway capacity. At the same time, we are having very strong growth in the outer jurisdictions where there is relatively little transit," Kirby said. "So those trips, whether they are work trips or non-work trips, are very dependent on the road system."

One bright spot, he added: "Carpooling is expected to increase some because we do have some facilities coming on line,” said Kirby, referring to the recently completed I-495 Express Lanes and the I-95 Express Lanes, which are under construction. 

But overall, transportation choices are not expected to change much as the region grows. By 2040, 57 percent of all commuting trips will be made by people driving on their own car, a four percent decrease from current levels. Carpooling is expected to increase from 11 to 14 percent of commuting trips, transit will remain steady at 24 percent and biking and walking will increase from 4 to 5 percent, according to the forecast.

Smart growth advocate sees different future

Is the future really so bleak? Some lawmakers who sit on the Council of Governments board take issue with the forecast, saying its extrapolations do not account for changes in policy and other factors.

“It would be a mistake to think that’s what the future is going to be,” said Chris Zimmerman, a member of the Arlington County Board and proponent of transit-oriented development. He disagrees with the forecast’s projection that employment will grow fastest in the outer jurisdictions of Virginia.

"The real question is where do you want the growth in jobs and population to be? That’s not a foregone conclusion," Zimmerman said. "Almost all the growth in this region and the rest of the country is happening in more developed areas because the market is pushing it that way. If land use regulations change in ways that accommodate what the market wants to do, we'll see an accelerated trend."

Transit-oriented development that combines retail, office, and residential properties in close proximity to a Metro station also encourages more walking, Zimmerman said. The highway system will always need significant funding for maintenance and improvements, he added, but he thinks it makes more sense to attract new jobs them to places that workers can reach without a car.

The average number of jobs accessible by transit within 45 minutes will increase from the current 419,000 to 499,000 in 2040, according to the forecast — a projection Zimmerman says could change with different land use policies.

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