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Bust Open the Piggy Bank

Updated traffic plan might make things better, after 25 years and $30 billion.

Traffic relief is in sight. At least it could be, in 25 years, and if Northern Virginia can come up with more than $15 billion in addition the $15 billion which is already earmarked for projects.

About 50 people came to the Dec. 6 meeting where the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority unveiled their vision for what the regional transportation network should look like in 2030.

"It gets better," said Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chair Gerry Connolly (D). Connolly has a seat on the authority board.

Indeed, if everything in the $30 billion plan is built, and the population and job projections for regional growth in future decades hold true, traffic delays on most major roads will be less than they are today — with the notable exception of the Dulles Toll Road which gets worse under any scenario.

The plan is largely the same as the 2020 plan, released in 1999, except this new version prioritizes the various projects within each of eight corridors. The plan came about after The General Assembly required the Authority to produce a regional transportation plan.

Most of the 2020 plan remains unbuilt, something which authority chair David Snyder, also a member of the Falls Church City Council, says won't happen again. "I think the commitment this time is this is not going to sit on the shelf. This is going to be a blueprint."

In developing the plan, the authority conducted telephone polls to try and gather information about what sorts of improvements are needed, and how people might be willing to pay for them.

One finding relates to a larger issue of development in general. "As you move form the core and inner suburbs to the outer suburbs, that level of frustration [with commuting] increases," said Jana Lynott a planner with the Authority.

One way to address this is the plan's shift to incorporating more bicycle and pedestrian needs. "The plan does a much better job of dealing with alternate modes of transit," said Arlington County Board Member Chris Zimmmerman (D). Zimmerman is a member of the authority.

THE MEETING WAS a formal public hearing on the proposed new plan. One of the most controversial items in the meting was the Western Transportation corridor.

Loudoun County Supervisor Sally Kurtz (D-Catoctin) was opposed to the Western Transportation corridor, saying it puts an unnecessary uncertainty in the lives of those who live near the route.

Kurtz said that a new Potomac River bridge to Montgomery County should come in the plan before the Western Transportation corridor. No such bridge is specifically mentioned (although a bridge at Point of Rocks, at the end of the Western Transportation Corridor is part of the plan), however there are several north-south road projects which point right at Montgomery County, Md.

However, she noted the difficulty with including a new bridge. "There's never been a regional agreement," Kurtz said. "More important, there's never been an interstate agreement."

Kurtz reminded the audience that the bridge would direct the Techway into Montgomery County's agricultural reserve, something that Montgomery has been loathe to do. "Discuss with Maryland if you want a new bridge," she said. "You need credible data, credible planning, and Maryland at the table from the start of the process."

County Board Chair Scott York (I) also opposed the corridor, saying it was the one major problem he has with the plan. York is also a member of the Authority.

"This is a road which we call a vampire road, because it continues to rise from the dead," said Stewart Schwartz of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

Lori Kimball of Leesburg thought the Western Transportation Corridor is unneeded. "We have an east-west commuter problem in Loudoun County, not a north-south one," she said.

Widening I-66 inside the Beltway also drew criticism from the audience. Barry Tindall of the Falls Church area said that even if 66 is widened, traffic will still back up when it hits the bridges and streets of Washington DC which are narrower. The plan, he said is popular because elected leaders in areas further west can call for the widening, and then blame Arlington for holding it up. "I would continue to put my money on Metrorail and other mass transit. Get off this kick of widening 66 inside the Beltway," he said.

TINDALL MAY NOT be alone. According to the phone surveys, there is large public support for transit projects, with 50 percent of residents surveyed citing public transportation as their top priority. The surveys also showed that people might be willing to pay for the fix. Generally people who favor transit over roads were willing to pay more.

"What's stunning about the surveys is that the public's willing to pay a lot more than they're being asked to pay," Connolly said. "I think the public's ahead of the politicians."

How to pay remains an open question. In 2003, voters in the region rejected a referendum which would have added a half-cent to the sales tax to pay for transportation. But according to the survey, the sales tax is the most palatable option for funding the projects.

"Will the state provide any leadership and provide any funding?" said York. "Unfortunately, I think many times, we're afraid of the word tax."

Some funding is likely to come from the private sector. The plan includes projects which would add lanes to roads like the Beltway, Dulles Toll Road and I-95. Each of these roads is the subject of a possible public-private partnership which will build the roads with private funds and charge drivers to use them.

Private funds, however, can not always be the answer, York said. The current development paradigm where government officials rely on developers to build infrastructure as a part of their rezonings to help fix existing problems is not sustainable, he said. "We can't simply afford to continue with that kind of thinking."

One theme which was clear from elected officials was their general agreement that transportation and land use must be tied together. They generally supported the position of Gov.-Elect Tim Kaine (D) which would allow localities to deny development requests based on insufficient transportation in the area. "They've really been divorced," said Arlington County Board Member Chris Zimmmerman (D).

Authority staff will now consider public comments and complete the technical review as they complete the final draft. The Authority will likely present the plan to the General Assembly during its 2006 session.