As I absorb this, Kirby throws me a little hope. “There is another scenario,” he says, no doubt eager to wipe the perturbed look off my face. “We call it the Aspirations Scenario.”
This scenario, he says, is what might be achieved if some additional elements—all of which might be considered “within reach”—are layered onto the CLRP. In other words, Kirby is about to explain what would happen to congestion with additional funding, a little political courage, and some common sense.
The CLRP Aspirations (or is it desperation?) Scenario sounds promising. The first component is for state and local governments to be smarter about land use and to create rules and incentives that concentrate growth in communities that mix residential and business zones and are located near existing or planned mass-transit centers. COG has identified 58 locations throughout the region where people do business or live—in some cases both—and the idea is to transform them into livable, workable, walkable, bikable communities that have easy access to public transportation.
This isn’t a new idea, but changing patterns of land use is hard. “We started in the 1960s with a highway-oriented policy and encouraged suburban development,” Kirby says. “Then we shifted to emphasizing transit instead of highways, but suburban growth has continued and highway capacity hasn’t.” Even if local governments, zoning boards, and developers would do the right thing on land use, it’s not a silver bullet. “Eighty-five percent of what will be on the ground in 2040 is already there or approved,” Kirby says. “Only 15 percent could change.”
Happily, the Aspirations Scenario has two more bullets. One is perhaps more radioactive than silver, but it could transform the way we drive: using E-ZPass transponders on cars to charge variable tolls for access to congestion-free lanes. High-occupancy vehicles travel free in the lanes, while low-occupancy vehicles (fewer than three people—which is the way most Americans, including Washington drivers, tend to roll) would have to pay for access to the lanes if they want to enjoy the peace and quiet of a nearly empty car.
The idea is simple and powerful. We have too many drivers competing for limited road space. If drivers had to pay for that commodity, and pay a premium for traveling at peak times, they would be more likely to carpool, take mass transit, telecommute, bike, or walk. Demand would go down. Congestion on key roads would be reduced. Traffic would start to flow again. Put aside the howls of driver outrage for a minute. The theory is already being proved in places such as London, which imposes a congestion fee on cars traveling into central parts of the city and has reduced congestion by about 30 percent.
And consider the beauty of opening up a major new revenue source, which could help pay for the aspirations plan’s third bullet: the creation of a 500-mile bus rapid-transit system that would flow along the less congested roadways and give everyone a good transportation alternative to cars.
It should be noted that the non-aspirational CLRP takes a very tentative step into the scary new world of priced lanes. It takes some 150 miles of highway and either transforms high-occupancy-vehicle (HOV) lanes into high-occupancy-toll (HOT) lanes (you travel free if you’re high occupancy or pay to use the lane if you’re not) or simply adds a HOT-lane option to the existing roadway. Drivers who carpool would be rewarded with a free, or reduced-price, fast lane, and low-occupancy drivers would have the option of paying for access to a faster lane or twiddling their thumbs and smartphones from the slow lane for free.
It’s a bit haphazard, with most of the HOT action taking place on a section of the Beltway west of DC and on 95 South. The segment of 395 between the Beltway and the Potomac River has been dropped from the plan thanks to objections from Arlington. That just happens to be one of the most congested routes in the area, and it will only get worse as 6,400 workers are dumped into the mix at a new office complex on 395 called the Mark Center, courtesy of the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission, which is reducing the number of military bases in the area and consolidating their workforce.
Next: Traffic congestion will still get worse