Housing Complex

Ambitious Transportation Plan Aims to Predict the Future and Learn From the Past

A map of the planned citywide transit network, including bike lanes (red), streetcars (dark blue), high-capacity transit lines (light blue), and roads (gray).

A map of the planned citywide transit network, including bike lanes (red), streetcars (dark blue), high-capacity transit lines (light blue), and roads (gray).

I'm the only reporter who's shown up to the media briefing at the District Department of Transportation, but we're 10 minutes past the scheduled start time, so DDOT spokesman Reggie Sanders tells the department officials to get things rolling. "Some of the other reporters are stuck in traffic," he says.

DDOT aims to change that. Its MoveDC plan, an ambitious blueprint released last week for transportation improvements over the next 25 years, is not, on first blush, driver-friendly. It aspires to add 70 miles of "high-capacity transit" (either streetcar or bus), 200 miles of bike lanes and trails, sidewalks on at least one side of every street, and water taxis, among other provisions. There's something for bikers, pedestrians, transit riders, and even boaters. But what do drivers get? Congestion pricing that would charge them for entering the downtown area, and potential tolls on major thoroughfares.

But DDOT officials insist this plan is as good for people who currently drive as it is for everyone else, and will help people like D.C.'s tardy press corps get around more efficiently. This is perhaps counterintuitive: The plan projects a 28 percent population increase in the District between now and 2040 and a 40 percent increase in jobs here, yet allocates for the same number of car trips as are currently taken. But the status quo, says Sam Zimbabwe, DDOT's associate director of planning, policy, and sustainability, would put more cars on the road and make driving miserable.

"If everybody's choice is to drive, the congestion become unmanageable," he says. "And that affects everyone." By giving people both an option (through expanded biking and transit facilities) and an incentive (through fees for driving on certain roads or into certain areas) to choose alternatives to driving, the plan makes driving easier for those who continue to get around by car.

"People may say, 'I don't have that bad of a problem getting in today,'" adds DDOT planner Colleen Hawkinson. But that won't be the case for long unless the city makes some changes.

Those changes won't be easy to execute. The MoveDC plan comes with an estimated $54 billion price tag. Of that sum, $21 billion is already expected to be provided through transportation funding over the next 25 years; the rest needs to be approved by the city government or raised by other means.

And DDOT's task just got that much harder. Last week, the D.C. Council voted to strip hundreds of millions of dollars from the streetcar funding laid out in Mayor Vince Gray's budget for the coming year. The mayor's office says this could kill the city's planned 22-mile priority streetcar network, scheduled for completion over the next 10 years, and the broader 37-mile network planned after that. Members of the Council counter that there's still plenty of funding. But either way, a substantial chunk of the funds DDOT had counted on in its MoveDC plan is now likely gone.

"We had looked at how to deliver a 22-mile system in 10 years," says Zimbabwe. "This is going to affect that, and we're trying to figure out how it will affect that."

Still, DDOT acting director Matt Brown says the Council's actions won't cause DDOT to rethink its long-term plan. "We're not going to adjust the vision based on today's budget battles," he says.

The transit provisions in the MoveDC plan are the most costly. Others are major policy changes that won't necessarily come at a great expense. Some could even raise substantial revenue. The proposal to institute congestion pricing and charge drivers who enter the central business district is expected to raise $165 million a year. (The technology of collecting these fees has yet to be worked out. Even the borders of the so-called cordon area are fluid, with its northern limit having shifted from Florida Avenue to Massachusetts Avenue after public concerns.) Likewise, if tolls are instituted on some roads, including New York Avenue NE and I-395, the revenue would likely be used to pay for the maintenance of those particular roads and bridges.

Those tolls would be capped at the cost of an equivalent peak Metro fare, although Zimbabwe still worries that any toll could simply lead people to seek alternate routes and cause major congestion there. "We know from parking that people do a lot to avoid paying," he says.

The considerable changes laid out in the MoveDC plan raise the question of just how feasible it is, particularly when the city's facing a change of administration this coming winter. But DDOT officials take solace in the city's 1997 transportation plan, some of whose major proposals, such as light rail on H Street NE and Georgia Avenue, now appear to be coming to fruition—if perhaps not as quickly as the planners of two decades ago had envisioned.

Still, much has changed since 1997, making some of the proposals in that plan look quaint. Because the city was still shrinking at the time and D.C. workers were increasingly commuting in from the suburbs, the plan called for more park-and-ride facilities at D.C. Metro stations. Now, with the population growing and transit-friendly living increasingly popular, the city's stations are being targeted for higher-density development. Likewise, says Zimbabwe, "20 years ago, nobody predicted that we'd have a bikeshare system that now has 7 million rides."

The MoveDC plan, the DDOT officials say, is therefore a "living document," one that'll change with the times. (One such area is self-driving cars, which are mentioned in the plan but not really accounted for as a major driver of change.) Still, Zimbabwe thinks the more data-intensive approach taken in this plan will serve the city well—even if changes both to the city and to its transportation plan are inevitable.

"It's always a little hard to predict the future," Zimbabwe says.

Map via the moveDC draft report

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