One of our key goals at SMTA  is to raise the level of the debate over transportation policy in our region, to focus more on the factual issues, less on politics or ideology.  

This is why we were pleased to participate in the recent survey of regional transportation experts released by the 2030 Group.  A recent article in Patch.com  reported on this effort.  

NewsChannel 8’s “News Talk with Bruce DePuyt” also did a follow-up piece today, with both SMTA and anti-road activists represented, in what turned out to be a lively debate.  The show illustrated areas of agreement and stark differences of opinion between those of us who seek to have multi-billion-dollar investments in transportation guided by solid planning, engineering and factual analysis,  and those who prefer to rely upon blind ideology and wishful thinking. 

Facts are stubborn things, however, and by focussing on the facts we hope to help bring the entire commnity together around a set of solutions that are realistic and can work, regardless of whether they are roads or transit, or something else entirely.   We welcome your continued input on this topic as we move forward. 

Click here for more on the key findings of the 2030 Group’s survey of regional transportation experts on regional transportation priorities.

We will also continue to press for increased investement in all modes of transportation, as no amount of discussion about priorities will accomplish anything without investing the necessary resources to get any of them built.  Maryland legislators, are you listening? 

Today the 2030 Group released a new study that was conducted jointly by SMTA and the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, to explore how the region sets transportation priorities and what leading experts in the field feel those priorities should be.   The survey was conducted over the past several months through telephone surveys and focus groups with over 40 top transportation professionals from Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.

 Summary of the Key Findings:

1.      The nation’s most congested region lacks a well-defined short-list of transportation investments that would have the greatest potential to reduce congestion/improve mobility over the next 20 years.

2.      Among transportation professionals, significant consensus exists as to highway and public transit investments that would be the most productive. 

3.      The top-ten projects are listed in the report, including continued investment in Metro System Maintenance and Operations, New Potomac Bridges, and multi-modal projects to add capacity in several key transportation corridors.

4.      The prioritization process should focus heavily on highway and transit investments that do the most to reduce travel times/delays, reduce congestion, and improve transportation network safety and reliability.

5.      Meeting the region’s transportation challenges requires not only selecting/advancing the right priorities, but a new process that is more regional and professional and less parochial, political and ideologically driven.

The number-one priority identified by regional experts:  Invest in current Metro system operations, core capacity and maintenance.  Multi-modal investments to area highways, bridges and new transit lines to better connect regional activity centers and key economic corridors together throughout the region rounded out most of the remaining  top-10 priorities, along with better land-use policies to encourage more transit-oriented development.

This independent study was sponsored by the 2030 Group, an association of business and community leaders working towards greater regional cooperation on long-term planning and economic issues.

The National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board (TPB) will meet tomorrow to take up their plan to develop a list of transportation priorities, in what looks to be a two-year process that should produce a final report by July of 2013.  

For those of us in Maryland who are stuck in traffic every day, or wondering when we might ever see major new transit projects like the Corridor Cities Transitway and the Purple Line move forward, or any serious effort to reduce the crippling congestion on the Beltway and I-270, 2013 might seem like an awefully long time to wait.  The first question for the TPB is, why should it take so long to identify what our priorities should be?  Aren’t they pretty clear?

What seems to be lacking is a clearcut set of regional performance metrics (reducing average peak-hour travel times between major activity centers, or reducing congestion at major choke-points, or reducing the region’s Travel Time Index by some target figure, for example).   From the documents released as part of this initial scoping excercise, it is not at all clear that the focus really will be on reducing congestion or improving access for our region’s 5.5 million residents.  Right now the effort seems a bit fuzzier than perhaps it ought to be.  After all, the need for congestion relief and better transit connections in our region is crystal clear. 

Here is a link to the report for tomorrow’s meeting.

Washington Post columnist Robert Thompson’s column Maryland Drivers Face Many Mini-Challenges draws a pretty stark contrast between the levels of major investment in congestion relief taking place in Virginia compared to Maryland.  

Northern Virginia is currently in construction on two multi-billion-dollar “mega projects” — the Metrorail extension to Dulles Airport and adding new lane capacity to their portion of the Capital Beltway (I-495) with additional high-occupancy-toll (HOT) lanes.   Both are being funded with a mix of public and private capital.  Additional capacity expansion projects are also either planned or starting construction in the I-95/395 corridor and the I-66 corridor, and construction is nearing completion on the last phase of the Wilson Bridge replacement project.

Maryland is building the ICC.  That’s about it right now in terms of major capacity improvements at the regional level.  The Purple Line and Corridor Cities Transitway, the much needed widening of I-270 and portions of our side of the Capital Beltway and the American Legion Bridge all are under “study” but those studies keep dragging on and on with no sign of construction in the near term, and no moves yet to ensure that any of them can be funded. 

What we are doing, as Thompson’s column makes clear, is a lot of minor resurfacing and repair projects throughout Frederick, Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties.  These are important, make no mistake, but don’t confuse this list of “mini” projects with actual investments to relieve the chronic congestion that plagues our region.  For that, just look to Virginia.

This week the University of Maryland announced they have reached agreement with the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) and are no longer opposing the proposed routes for the Purple Line that run right through the College Park campus.  Supporters of the Purple Line may take heart in this welcome development, which removes one of the last major sticking points in determining the alignment between Bethesda and New Carrollton for this nearly $2 billion light-rail transit project.

The University of Maryland deserves credit for recognizing the value of direct access to a major regional transit line, which means thousands of students from Montgomery County will have another option to get there other than wasting their time sitting on the Beltway.  This is especially good news for evening students at University of Maryland University College. 

The original Green Line Metro station was also supposed to be located on the College Park campus, but in one of the more short-sighted decisions in our local transportation history, it was placed about a mile away, meaning hardly anyone found it convenient enough to use.  Now, with the Purple Line alignment coming directly onto the campus, perhaps MTA could look into relocating the Green Line station as well so there is one central access and transfer point. 

The Purple Line is now one step closer as a result of this wise decision.

This week the Montgomery County Council was briefed on the summary findings of a new report, due to be released soon, on the feasibility of building a new countywide rapid-transit system, using bus-rapid-transit (BRT) technology. 

The proposed system would divert an estimated 85,000 drivers per day off existing roads, and cost roughly $2.5 billion to build, and another $144 to $173 million annually to operate.    

Look for more detailed coverage here when the entire report is released.  See our News Page for recent coverage in the Gazette.

Maryland State Senator Robert Garagiola, the chief sponsor of key transportation funding bills during the 2011 General Assembly Session, addressed the SMTA Board this week and reported back on the progress that was made this year in Annapolis, calling the overall result “a few steps forward and a few steps back.” 

Garagiola is also a member of Governor Martin O’Malley’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Transportation Funding, and discussed with the SMTA Board the status and future direction of the Task Force.  Sen. Garagiola was instrumental in leading what proved to be an unsuccessful fight for increased transportation revenues in Annapolis this year.  His efforts were made that much harder by external events, such as the instability in the Middle East and resulting short-term spike in fuel prices.    Discussions are now underway to raise the issue of Maryland’s ongoing transportation funding crisis during the upcoming special session on redistricting, and Senator Garagiola indicated he would continue to press for solutions.

The Maryland General Assembly just concluded its 2011 session with more disappointing results.  Despite a strongly worded plea from the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Transportation Funding, urging them to provide $800 million more in dedicated transportation funds, the General Assembly took a big step in the WRONG direction, cutting the already depleted Transportation Trust Fund by another $41 million this year.

This short-sighted action means many more months of continued high unemployment in Maryland’s bleaguered construction industry, more potholes, worsening gridlock, and no hope of moving to construction in the near term on any major transit or road improvements in our area.  Current funding levels do not support construction of the Purple Line, the Corridor Cities Transitway, or even the minimum requirements to keep up with failing bridge and road repairs across the State. 

Once again, Maryland legislators have put Transportation at the bottom of their priority list, and we are all paying the price.   Please join our mailing list and sign our petition asking Maryland officials to “Invest Now” and address Maryland’s severe transportation funding crisis during the upcoming special session on redistricting.   We cannot wait another year. 

Thank you.

As of March 7th, the free ride on the ICC comes to an unfortunate end.  The new toll rates are included in this fact sheet from the Maryland Transportation Authority, the agency now operating the InterCounty Connector.  Also included is information on EZ-Pass, clearly something you’ll want to do if you plan to use the ICC regularly.

Much discussion has taken place in recent years about the pricing of the tolls, which is higher than many would like.  While the rates are higher than many older toll facilities that long-ago paid off all their construction costs, if it is any comfort, they are in line with other new toll facilities in terms of the cost per mile.  State officials are saying the adjustable rates on the ICC will be changed up or down depending on how many people are using it, in order to maximize revenue and divert as many motorists as possible off surrounding streets.  We won’t really know the real impact until the whole facility is open, of course.

Though some continue to whine about the fact that there are tolls, I continue to see very little in the way of honesty or ownership regarding whose fault that really is.  Some of the blame clearly lies at the feet of those who blocked the road for so many years — and the politicians who dared not cross them — despite the lack of any viable alternative.  Had the ICC had been built when it was planned (around 1980), it would have saved Maryland taxpayers around $2 billion and would not have required ANY tolls.  The big lesson here:  Delay is expensive.  Now we have to pay for it.

Last month, the Rockville City Council abruptly reversed itself on the Corridor Cities Transitway (CCT), asking the State of Maryland to re-route the CCT alignment away from King Farm, one of the major communities it was designed to serve.  The State is now in the final stages of identifying it’s “Preferred Local Alternative” for the long-awaited transit line extending from Shady Grove Metro Station north to Clarksburg.  Supporters of the CCT are asking the State to continue with current plans and retain the alignment through King Farm, which was designed around the CCT as a “transit-oriented development” (or TOD) from its inception, with the full support of the City.  Without the CCT on the alignment that was envisioned in County master plans, the fear is that traffic conditions on surrounding roads, access to jobs and housing for King Farm residents and neighbors, and King Farm property values would all be negatively impacted.

The CCT will add tremendous value to King Farm by providing convenient transit access to destinations up and down the heavily traveled I-270 corridor, and it was a big part of the reason King Farm is there at all.  This is what transit-oriented suburban development was supposed to be all about.  Rockville would be better served by retaining the current alignment and the more sustainable development patterns that can be achieved through transit-oriented development, in King Farm and elsewhere.