THE National Capital Region—which stretches all the way from Baltimore and Washington, D.C., down to Richmond and comprises the third largest regional economy in the U.S.—is projected to add 2.4 million new residents over the next 20 years, according to the Greater Washington Partnership’s Capital Region Blueprint for Regional Mobility, “the first employer-led, comprehensive, region-wide transportation agenda.”
Besides planning where all those millions of new people are supposed to live is the equally daunting task of figuring out how they’re supposed to get around on the region’s already overloaded transportation systems.
Apparently with great difficulty.
“Under current projections and planned investments, roadway congestion will worsen across the Capital Region through 2040, with congestion expected to show a region-wide increase of more than 150 percent and a per capita increase of 125 percent,” according to the blueprint. “In daily life, this means that, on average, each person will spend nearly 50 percent of their travel time in a vehicle sitting in congestion by 2040.”
That means that the average travel time for Spotslyvania County residents—who currently have the second longest commute in the commonwealth, according to unitedstateszipcodes.org—will likely inch up from 44 to around 99 minutes over the next two decades, with half of that time spent sitting in traffic.
Fed-up drivers theoretically will turn to mass transit for relief. But in real life, the opposite is happening.
Overall transit ridership during the first quarter of fiscal 2019 (July through September 2018) declined an average of 2 percent across the board, according to the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission. Metrobus and Arlington Transit saw the steepest declines (7 percent each), but almost all of the transit agencies in Virginia serving the National Capital Region were affected. For example, ridership on PRTC’s Omni Ride & Omni Link declined 2 percent, and there was a 3 percent drop on the Virginia Railway Express during the same period.
The only bright spot was the $65 million award-winning Pulse Bus Rapid Transit line between downtown Richmond and Henrico County, which exceeded expectations by actually increasing ridership 17 percent between July 2018 and April 2019. But BRT has not caught on elsewhere, even though it is cheaper and offers more flexibility than heavy rail.
GWP’s ambitious blueprint envisions something that’s never happened before: unified long-range transportation planning that takes the whole Baltimore-to-Richmond region into account instead of the current Balkanized version.
But Joe McAndrew, director of GWP’s transportation policy, told The Free Lance–Star that such an integrated transportation plan is crucial for “our region’s growth trajectory,” pointing out that nearly 50 percent of all regional commuters in the corridor currently cross county lines, and 20 percent cross state borders on the way to work each day.
“We don’t have an entity that thinks about the demands of our regional residents and employers in a consistent and predictable way,” he said. “We recognize that such a strategic effort is challenging, but it’s also necessary.”
The success of Pulse shows that “if you provide quality service, people will use it, and businesses, developers and the economy will respond accordingly,” McAndrews added, noting that other jurisdictions are now belatedly taking a look at BRT.
The blueprint’s main objectives—fix existing transportation bottlenecks, create faster and more seamless commutes across multiple jurisdictions, and provide more mobility options so people have easier access to jobs and cultural assets—are critical to maximizing the region’s potential over the next two decades.
But achieving those objectives will not only require significant investments in transportation, but an unprecedented level of cooperation between government officials at the local, state and federal levels.
And they don’t have much time to get started.