CSG in the News: Officials must act on promise to fix the region’s Visualize 2050 transportation plan

March 21, 2024 | Greater Greater Washington | Bill Pugh

In 2021, area elected officials representatives promised a special transportation plan, in which projects would need to show how they address adopted goals like reducing climate pollution, fostering safer streets, improving job access, and advancing social equity to make it into the plan. The list of major projects for that new plan, “Visualize 2050” prepared by the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board (TPB), is out for comment through March 30.

This plan is important because it shows how the region’s transportation investments collectively succeed or fail in addressing important issues, and, under federal law, major projects must be in the plan to get built. The plan also demonstrates where the region’s priorities are – endlessly widening roads to move vehicles, or giving people affordable and sustainable travel options and proximity to jobs and services.

Unfortunately, the Visualize 2050 draft projects are very similar to those in the disappointing last regional plan, finalized and adopted by TPB in 2022. And the supposedly rigorous process for the current plan has not materialized, instead resulting in absurd claims and evaluation results. A few examples:

  • Widening the already eight-lane Chain Bridge Road through Tysons Corner (pictured above), while the area tries to become more walkable and transit-friendly, gets a perfect 8 out of 8 checkmarks in meeting regional goals.
  • Creating bus lanes on Georgia Avenue NW in DC and adding safety improvements only gets 2 out of 8 checkmarks in meeting regional goals.
  • Almost half of the many highway and arterial widening projects in the plan claim to help TPB meet its goal of slashing greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, despite decades of evidence to the contrary. A number of these projects making the claim won’t even be constructed until 2040 or beyond.

How did the region get here and what can we do to make this plan better?

Who develops Visualize 2050?

TPB comprises representatives of cities, counties, states and transportation agencies in Greater Washington. Thus, many readers of GGWash have at least one elected official from their community on the governing board of TPB. The agency, which is housed at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, prepares the region’s transportation plan by compiling the major infrastructure projects of its local and state member governments, but TPB also sets overall policies to guide projects and programs. For example, TPB in 2022 adopted a very strong greenhouse gas reduction goal for the region’s transportation system, and in 2020 established social equity as a foundational principle, committing to correct historic inequities through its work.

For the current Visualize 2050 plan, officials on the board of TPB voted to add special accountability measures for its goals and policies. Local and state agencies were directed to review their projects for consistency with TPB’s policy framework and consider ways to cut climate pollution, before they could submit them for inclusion in the plan.

How is this new plan different? Not much

One significant and helpful change is that TPB, after hearing from the Coalition for Smarter Growth (where I work) and 38 other organizations concerned about Visualize 2050, held a public comment period in 2023 before agencies submitted their projects to be in the plan. Fairfax and Prince William counties also held local meetings. The nearly 1,000 public comments on projects overwhelmingly supported transit, rail, walking, biking, and local complete streets projects and opposed roadway widening and expansions.

The requirement to review all projects, even ones already in the previous plan, did result in some changes. For example, Fairfax County removed several road widening projects, but two new major highway expansions (I-95 and I-495 Southside) were added. Montgomery, Prince George’s and Charles counties also removed a number of destructive road widening projects, but MDOT’s unpopular expansion of I-495 and I-270 is still in the plan.

A look at the project list shows the vast majority of the highway and arterial expansion projects continue in this plan, despite well-established evidence that widening roads doesn’t reduce congestion and makes our climate change problem worse. Maps show the outward sprawl of road expansion projects, and Prince George’s and Charles counties getting virtually no new transit projects. Note that the projects out for comment are just the regionally significant projects that go through the plan’s air quality modeling, so the list does not include a number of planned safety, maintenance, and trail projects that will go in the plan later.

A box-checking exercise

There are no doubt a number of good projects in the plan, such as:

  • Montgomery County’s bus rapid transit (BRT) network
  • Completion of the Purple Line in Maryland
  • 17 road diet safety and transit projects in DC
  • BRT in Alexandria, Arlington and Fairfax
  • Major passenger and freight rail investments across Northern Virginia into DC

However, there’s no accountability for projects to show they address regional goals. Many project questionnaires lack required information. For example, no agencies provided the required explanation of how their projects would contribute to meeting TPB’s greenhouse gas target.

The assessment by TPB staff of whether a project is consistent with TPB’s goals, simply notes if a project checked boxes for federal planning factors, not even considering whether a project implements TPB’s own priority strategies.

As a result, there’s no rhyme or reason why projects get in the plan or even why they get checkmarks for supposedly supporting TPB goals. A few examples:

  • Some good projects, like implementing BRT on Rockville Pike, get 8-for-8 checkmarks in meeting regional goals, but so do bad projects, like spending half a billion dollars to widen US 50 across Fairfax County (and not adding BRT).
  • A new interchange and freeway lanes project located in the midst of current farmland in Frederick County supposedly would support Metrobus and Bus Rapid Transit, according to the Maryland Department of Transportation.
  • Spending $400 million to expand the Dulles Airport Access Road, despite the huge investment in the Silver Line, would help provide “accessible mobility solutions that are based on the principles associated with equity, sustainability, diversity, and community health,” according to the Virginia Department of Transportation.
  • Some low scores also make no sense: adding bike lanes, building a missing sidewalk and taming traffic by a middle school on Graham Park Road in Prince William County only get three checkmarks.
  • 23 road widening projects – over a third – get checkmarks from TPB for “Environmental Protection,” despite being inconsistent with the activities that TPB’s policy framework lists for that goal.

TPB and its members have time to fix this plan

The good news is that Visualize 2050 has an extra year to be fixed, because the board voted to start the plan early so they could get it right this time. If TPB members are serious about the climate and safety targets, equity resolution, scenario analysis, and project zero-based budgeting that they voted for, now is the time to show it.

Before starting the year-long air quality conformity modeling process – at the end of which it’s too late to make substantive changes to the plan – TPB needs to conduct a real project evaluation now and remove the wasteful projects that undermine regional goals.

Public comment is open on the project list through March 30, 2024.