After a lengthy discussion at its July 19 meeting, the TPB accepted for further study the recommendations of its Long-Range Plan Task Force, a group set up in March to identify a limited set of large-scale transportation and land-use initiatives that could help make significantly greater progress toward achieving long-term regional transportation goals. Both the task force and the board had to work through and think well beyond their personal and local views to see the broader regional picture and reach a final decision on what initiatives to study.
Among the ten initiatives are completion of a regional express lanes network; a new northern bridge crossing of the Potomac River; bus rapid transit in Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, Northern Virginia, and D.C.; free transit for low-income residents; increased jobs and housing around underutilized rail stations; and Metrorail extensions to Centreville, Gainesville, and/or Potomac Mills.
— TPB (@NatCapRegTPB) July 19, 2017
The TPB’s acceptance of the recommendations means that the ten initiatives will be studied to assess their relative potential in helping the region meet its long-term goals. TPB Vice-Chairman and Task Force Chairman Jay Fisette was careful to point out at the meeting that the board’s acceptance did not signal the TPB’s support for or endorsement of any of the initiatives. He also emphasized that the action was only an interim step to help narrow down the list and that the TPB would revisit the list later this year to debate which projects the TPB could or should champion in the future.
The task force made its July recommendations after a series of six meetings in which the group brainstormed more than 80 different potential ideas, then worked to systematically narrow that list to just ten. In the end, ideas were included that not everyone liked, but the members agreed that they deserved further study.
A spirited debate reflected a diverse region
The one initiative that dominated the lengthy July 19 board discussion was the idea of a new Potomac River crossing north of the Capital Beltway’s American Legion Bridge. The idea has long been opposed by local and state officials in Maryland, which prompted board member Marc Elrich (Montgomery County) to propose removing it from the list altogether.
Elrich acknowledged the need for more transportation capacity between the two states but said that the region should focus its efforts on expanding the capacity of the American Legion Bridge, including to accommodate transit services.
“If we have funds, we ought to be focusing on the American Legion Bridge and we ought to be giving that bridge enough capacity to be more than an immediate solution. Which means it probably needs not just lanes, but it ought to be able to carry transit, too,” Elrich said.
Elrich also said that he and the Montgomery County Council, which just the day before had unanimously voiced its opposition to a new northern crossing, were concerned that a new bridge would spur more development and sprawl in the county’s Agricultural Reserve and lead to more congestion. He said that the bridge would never have the political will or financial feasibility to happen, and should therefore not be studied.
During the public comment period at the beginning of the meeting, Montgomery County Council President Roger Berliner made many of the same points, urging the TPB to remove the project from its study list.
Not everyone was opposed to the bridge idea, however. During public comment, several people testified in support of the bridge, mostly business and road-advocacy groups. These supporters referred to the importance of easing congestion and providing more mobility, as well as improving the region’s emergency preparedness.
Board member Ron Meyer (Loudoun County) said that the region needed to fill this critical gap linking residential and commercial areas in Virginia and Maryland, and he stressed the bridge’s potential to bolster economic development.
“I hope we don’t go another 10, 20, 50 years without looking at filling the missing gaps in our transportation system. This has been a missing gap for 70 years,” he said. “And I believe there is economic opportunity in Maryland, just like there is on our side of the river. That’s one of the reasons why I support this connection,” he said.
Some board members sought to remind their colleagues that the board’s acceptance was only one step in a long process of studying and debating further the different initiatives on the list.
Fisette was one of those voices, emphasizing the fact that the board’s July action would simply allow staff to proceed with a high-level analysis looking at relative effectiveness so that the task force could weigh whether any of the ten ideas would help the region meet its goals. “Nobody assumes it’s going to be a full comprehensive analysis. It’s not possible. That takes years. This is a comparable qualitative analysis, not just looking at congestion. It’s looking at our outcomes and goals embedded in our plan,” he said.
Board member and former TPB chairman Tim Lovain was another such voice. He urged his fellow board members to accept the recommendations as made by the task force, despite the concerns they might have about individual initiatives. “I don’t think we can build our way out of congestion, but I realize we’re dealing with an entire region and all we’re doing here is recommending this initiative for further study,” he said.
What happens next?
Now that the TPB has accepted the task force’s recommendations, a team of TPB engineers and planners, aided by an outside consultant, will begin the work of analyzing these ten ideas to see how much they might help the region get closer to its goals. The analysis will focus on the relative high-level impacts and costs of each of the initiatives. No matter which initiatives rise to the top of the list, all will require far more detailed study by the TPB or by the implementing agencies before they can move closer to reality.
The Long-Range Plan Task Force will reconvene in September to begin the next phase of its work. Later in the fall, the group will review the results of the analysis and consider other factors, including political and financial feasibility, as it works to decide which, if any, projects, programs, or policies the TPB should champion for the region. The task force is set to make its next round of recommendations in December.