AAA’s Lon Anderson reviews the good, the bad and the ugly of D.C. commuting
In September 1994, we published a “Dear Dr. Gridlock” letter from a Montgomery County resident who was on a new commute to Fair Oaks in western Fairfax County.
He had a complaint: “There’s only one place for us to cross the Potomac River. No wonder there’s so much congestion on the Beltway and on that bridge . . . Whatwe need is a newbridge crossing.”
The letter was signed “Lon Anderson, American Automobile Association.”
After almost 21 years, he’s still arguing for that bridge. But a new crossing is merely one of the scores of concerns, causes and complaints that Anderson has pursued over two decades as an advocate for theD.C. region’s travelers.
Anderson, who is retiring this summer from AAAMid-Atlantic, joined me for an online chat. This is an edited transcript drawn from the chat.
Q: You’ve seen many transportation programs come and go— and sometimes come back again. Are there any programs or projects that you think made a significant difference for local travelers over the past couple of decades?
Anderson: Bad: The refusal, at all levels of government, to responsibly fund transportation. Just a year or two before I started in 1994, the federal government had increased fuel taxes, as did Maryland, as part of a regular adjustment to meet the growing costs of meeting the nation’s and region’s needs.
Noteworthy was the fact that Virginia did not, and its last fuel tax increase was in 1986. After that, neitherMaryland nor Virginia made any adjustment until 2013, when the transportation funding in both states, for roads and transit, was literally running on fumes.
This has had a devastating impact onMetro’s operations and safety, on highway congestion, on newprojects, on bridges and roads— witness the recent limiting of bus and truck traffic on theMemorial Bridge because of inadequate funding to maintain it.
Disgraceful, but the logical result of two decades of inadequate funding.
Good: The use of private capital via public-private partnerships to get projects done in spite of little or no government money. Virginia is a national leader in this, and the express lanes on the Beltway and I-95 are great examples.
Bad: The continued rise of parochialism in regional transportation planning. There is no one with any power who heads transportation in our region. Our region’s Transportation Planning Board must get lists of projects from local jurisdictions and then cobble together a plan made from those local wish lists.
Who is doing what is good for the region? After 20 years of searching, I have not found that person/entity.
Q: Looking across the entire D.C. region, are commuters better off— or worse off— than they were 20 years ago?
Anderson: Whether commuters are faring better or worse over the last two decades is really a function of where they are located. Overall, if they commute in the District or Maryland, they are worse off, and better if inNorthern Virginia. It’s Virginia that has added the big road and mass transit improvements in the last 20 years — and commuter experience reflects that.
I have been referring to Maryland as Rip vanMaryland, engaged in long transportation slumber, while Virginia was
spending some $15 billion plus on several mega-projects that really are making a difference.
Q: If the Transportation Genie granted you three wishes on behalf of commuters, what would they be?
Anderson: 1. To complete the late Transportation Planning Board director Ron Kirby’s vision of express lanes with an express bus network on all of our major interstates that would allow our region to have a huge and connected bus rapid transit network on all of our interstates — all around the Beltway and on all the major arteries.
2. To build a newbridge north of the Beltway that would connect Gaithersburg/ Germantown with the Reston/ Dulles corridor. This will actually relieve Beltway traffic and the American Legion Bridge and give the Beltway a fighting chance of operating in other than a total gridlock mode.
3. To see the needed mass transit built throughout our region— and done properly. Think of it: The Purple Line done, and bus rapid transit operating around the Beltway, out I-66, out I-270. Such a system really would attract riders, get people out of the cars and thus make both roads and mass transit work better.
But the BRT system must not be built on the cheap, as Montgomery County is proposing — taking general traffic lanes and converting them to bus only. Capacity must be added, not subtracted, when you suffer some of the worst congestion in the nation.