RELEASE: On the Wrong Road in Northern Virginia

For immediate release:
April 6, 2022


Stewart Schwartz, 703-599-6437   

Bill Pugh, 202-821-3226

On the Wrong Road: Northern Virginia proposed highway expansion program would
increase driving even faster than population growth

Washington DC – The Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTAuthority) will be making multi-billion dollar decisions this year on the region’s transportation future – updating both their long-range TransAction plan and their 6-year construction plan. Analysis by the Coalition for Smarter Growth (CSG) finds that the agency’s massive highway expansion plans would fuel huge levels of additional driving, on top of the driving anticipated from population growth. Instead of helping Northern Virginians drive less, the proposed 1,200 miles of new pavement would instead make the region more car dependent. 

“What our ‘On the Wrong Road’ report shows is that the NVTAuthority needs to take a new direction this year. Northern Virginians want to drive less, not more, and based on regional surveys, they also want their leaders to address climate change,” said Stewart Schwartz, CSG Executive Director.

CSG analyzed the NVTAuthority’s current adopted TransAction long-range transportation plan and found that it would expand highways at rates much faster than anticipated population growth. For example, Loudoun County would expand its arterial highways at a rate over 1.5 times its population growth, and Prince William at a rate three times faster than its population growth. Fairfax and Manassas would also build arterial highway miles faster than their population growth.

Due to the well documented phenomenon of induced demand, these new and bigger highways lead to more cars on the roads and more miles of driving, with research showing that expanded highways often fill up with traffic in as little as five years. CSG used the State Highway Induced Frequency of Travel calculator, developed by Rocky Mountain Institute, and found that TransAction could make residents and workers drive almost 3 billion more miles per year by 2040 on top of new car trips anticipated from population and job growth. 

“Our analysis using RMI’s calculator shows that vehicle miles traveled would increase up to 42% on Loudoun’s highway network, significantly more than the county’s rate of population growth, and up to 60% on Prince William’s non-interstate highways, almost three times the rate of its population growth. Decades of research show that widening major roads leads to people making more and longer auto trips or making those trips during busy times of day or on busy routes that they would normally avoid,” said Bill Pugh, CSG Senior Policy Fellow and author of the report. “This adds traffic back to those expanded highways within five to ten years. New and expanded highway projects also spark more spread out, auto-dependent development, generating even more driving and traffic over time.”

“Meanwhile, our communities lose the opportunity to invest in more walkable, transit-oriented communities with shorter travel distances that benefit drivers and everyone else,” said Schwartz. “While NVTA has funded many great transit, rail, pedestrian and bicycle projects, these projects tend to be concentrated within the inner jurisdictions. Overall NVTA has dedicated most of its billions in regional funding to expanding highways, and its next proposed six-year funding program would do the same, allocating almost two-thirds of its funds to highway expansion.”

“This increased car dependence would also make it impossible for Northern Virginia to meet its climate commitments. We know from multiple studies at the local and national levels that electric vehicles and a cleaner electrical grid will not be enough; that we also have to reduce the amount people have to drive,” said Pugh.

“The good news is that NVTA and the local elected officials that comprise its board have the opportunity this year to change their six-year and long range plans to instead prioritize investment in walkable, transit-oriented communities. This would enable Northern Virginians to drive less, have more options to get around or live closer to destinations, spend less on transportation, have safer streets, avoid the worst effects of climate change, and protect our farms, forests and natural resources,” said Schwartz.

The report executive summary and full report are available here.