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Can Washington Handle 30 More Years of Terrible Traffic?
Comments () | Published November 7, 2011
When Jim Russ started out, he did morning and evening traffic reports. Now it's a 24-hour business. Photograph by Kevin Koski

The reason the CLRP is so underwhelming when it comes to priced lanes is—naturally—a reluctance to make drivers angry (even though they’re already angry about the congestion). So HOT lanes are being built only where they can either be converted from HOV lanes or added to the existing roadway without taking away free lanes. In other words, no carpool-averse driver will lose the option of enjoying the bumper-to-bumper experience in a free lane.

By contrast, the Aspirations Scenario would create a 1,650-mile network of priced lanes. Now we’re deep into Kirby’s “if only” world. You can sense how happy it would make him if the region would take such a bold and transformative step. To get to that big number, you’d start with the 150 miles of HOT lanes already planned; layer on an additional 350 miles of lanes converted from HOV; stripe in 650 miles of new, priced lanes; and convert 500 miles of “general purpose” (that is, free) lanes in the District and on national parkways. The political grenade is that this plan would take over lots of miles of free roadway. Other than that, the technology and planning are all teed up. “If the political decision could be made, this could be done,” Kirby says.

It’s bold. It’s big. It’s brave. I’m excited. “So what impact would this scenario have on congestion?” I ask.

“It would be major,” Kirby says. According to his models, by 2030 this trifecta of strategies would deliver a 6.1-percent increase in average speeds, a 13.8-percent decrease in rush-hour traffic delays for the average commuter, and a savings for commuters of about $200 a year in time.

That sounds impressive. But perhaps the COG coffee is doing its job. My brain slowly starts to process the fact that these are improvements over what the lame old CLRP will deliver, which is to say improvements compared with a dramatically deteriorating traffic picture. If instead you compare the impact the Aspirations Scenario would have with the conditions that actually exist today, suddenly it doesn’t look like something to aspire to. In fact, the hours of delay the average rush-hour commuter loses to congestion would go up by about 3 percent over today. Which means that the Aspirations Scenario—the best Kirby believes we can hope for—achieves the following: Traffic congestion will still get worse; it just won’t get orders-of-magnitude worse.

Awesome.

It’s 5:40 am on a summer Monday, and the traffic on the inner loop of the Beltway near Connecticut Avenue is in the early stages of its slow congeal toward rush-hour stasis. Summer is usually a time of lighter traffic, but cars and trucks on the racetrack curves near I-270 are already betraying a skittish urgency. Drivers, most of them alone, are veering from lane to lane in search of open road, and every exit that rolls past dumps a stream of new vehicles into the mix. You can almost feel the stress rising.

A black Ford Expedition pulls up within about six inches from my bumper, its driver jabbering on a cell phone as he waits for me to pay tribute to his vehicular mass and move out of the way. I don’t mind, because I don’t have to deal with this every day. Plus I’m on my way to Metro Networks, which has a hardened team of traffic reporters who feed traffic news to radio and TV stations throughout the Mid-Atlantic. In about 20 minutes, maybe I’ll get to watch as the Expedition’s battering-ram progress across Maryland is slammed to a stop by a full-on snarl.

Metro Networks scans the region’s roads from a bland corporate aerie on the 15th floor of an office building in Silver Spring. I’m greeted by director of operations Jim Russ, a middle-aged traffic-reporting vet who’s wearing chinos, a blue oxford shirt, and loafers without socks. He looks like a guy who just came back from a vacation on Block Island—which he did—except that he has the weary demeanor of a man who has spent 25 years ladling out bad news.

Next: What a typical day is like working for Metro Networks

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Posted at 10:30 AM/ET, 11/07/2011 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles