Given the level of pain that congestion is inflicting on drivers, it seems reasonable to ask what’s being done about it. Luckily, tucked away in a bland and quiet office on 777 North Capitol Street in DC is a man who can actually see the future. He’s a mild-mannered, middle-aged, Australian transplant with a number cruncher’s assured demeanor and a soft voice that carries vestiges of his native twang. His name is Ron Kirby, and he’s director of the Department of Transportation Planning at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
COG, as it’s known, was created more than 50 years ago to develop coherent planning for Maryland, Virginia, and DC. A lot of COG’s work involves the 16,000 miles of roads and transit networks that crisscross state and city lines in a complex jurisdictional web that partly explains why traffic is such a mess. Kirby is the guy whose job it is to try to sort all that out, and he spends much of his time immersed in transportation data, analysis, and projections. To the extent that anyone knows what traffic in Washington will look like in coming decades, he seems to be the guy.
Kirby meets me in the COG reception area, where I’m perusing earnest brochures with titles like “Commuter Connections (A Smarter Way to Work)” and “Region Forward (Our Region. Our Choice).” I’ve already armed myself with a decent-size cup of COG coffee, and we make our way to a conference room.
Kirby started his journey toward traffic-guru status as a PhD who built mathematical models to forecast traffic. He’s been at COG since 1987. He’s guided by numbers and rationality yet somehow maintains his equanimity in the face of local politics and planning that are often oblivious or maybe even hostile to the sensible strategies his carefully calibrated models spit out.
“The biggest issue we are facing is a total refusal to raise the gas tax,” he says, pointing out that in addition to providing funding for road and public-transit improvements, it would help spur energy efficiency and reduce our reliance on foreign oil. But local congestion isn’t just a funding problem. “Building without restraint of use is hopeless,” Kirby says, alluding to the need to get cars off the roads. “Instead of four lanes of gridlock, you end up with six.”
I ask Kirby what The Plan is. He starts to summarize a strategy for the region, known as the Financially Constrained Long-Range Plan (CLRP in COG-ese). The CLRP looks at the next 30 years and lays out what we can expect if current plans and budgets continue. It includes all the major projects expected to be built over that period, such as the Dulles Rail line, Maryland’s Purple Line, and the Intercounty Connector, which top a long list of transportation upgrades. The “financially constrained” part means that if a project or transportation idea—no matter how worthy—is unfunded, it doesn’t get included. So the CLRP is a good snapshot of how Maryland, Virginia, DC, and the federal government plan to respond to the transport needs of our region.
Kirby runs through the details. The amount of money spent in the CLRP scenario (from federal, state, and local sources) is far from negligible: $5.4 billion a year on average over the next 29 years, or a total of $229.9 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars, for transit, roads, and highways as well as maintenance and operations. That sounds like a lot of transpo-bang. And the CLRP numbers indicate that by 2040 the average Washingtonian will be driving a little less (4 percent), partly because more people will be using public transit to get to work (and partly because they hate the traffic).
There’s a big hitch, though. Thanks to the region’s resilient economy, its population is expected to increase by 30 percent by 2040. That’s another 1.65 million people on top of the 2010 population of 5.5 million. So even if each person drives a little less, there will still be a lot more vehicles on the roads. The result is that congestion will get a lot worse. In fact, Kirby and his team expect that by 2030 the number of hours commuters lose to traffic delays will increase by 20 percent.
“So the net result of existing plans to spend more than $200 billion,” I say to Kirby, just to be sure I have it right, “is a major increase in congestion?” He nods.
The numbers are the numbers, and I guess staying neutral about them is the only way to stay sane in his job.
Next: What is the Aspirations Scenario?