I have the feeling that there will be something in this column for every reader to disagree with. Why? Because it is about transportation planning, and there is probably no other subject that has less consensus. Why would I want to write about such a topic? Because I think I am learning some things worth passing on.
I recently took off a few days to get caught up on reading, and included in my pile of books and reports a large number about transportation, including a stack I had picked up during a visit to the Transportation Board of the National Research Council in Washington, DC.
After reading through all of it, I came to the startling realization that there is nothing that can really be called transportation planning going on in the United States. This may not be a surprise to some of you, but I had always assumed there was some kind of structure in place somewhere in federal and state government, given the billions of dollars available every year for projects.
Oh sure, there are these designated metropolitan planning organizations for each major urban area, but how all their work is pulled together into rational regional and state decisions on roads and transit is, frankly, a mystery. There appears to be some sort of process that brings specific projects together to rank and place on lists, but there is no real opportunity for give and take with interested citizens or public interest groups over the general direction of transportation policy and priorities for different modes. The closest we have come to that around here was the recent debate in the Virginia General Assembly, where the members actually developed their own lists of specific projects for funding.
The way I see it, since there is no process to make fundamental regional transportation decisions, there is no way to come to closure on what to do about controversial projects. And because the only way then left for citizens to deal with these broader issues is to attack the individual projects, everything becomes controversial.
Projects with tremendous citizen opposition are treated no differently from others. They are not talked out and resolved in a regional context. Instead, they stay on the list year after year, a constant source of frustrated hope to proponents, and a constant irritant to those who are opposed and don’t know how to make the thing just go away.
I blame the engineering schools. They have put out generation after generation of highway engineers who are not taught that building consensus is the best way to build a project. Instead, they are instilled with the idea that to plan is to “predict and provide,” as it was characterized by one English critic of the U.S. system. Data is gathered to predict needs, and projects are developed to provide for the need. It is almost 19th century in its simplicity. Concepts such as “induced demand” — congestion caused by the traffic drawn to new highways, or even the idea that highways might exacerbate sprawl — are considered heretical.
The result of all this muddling is that too many projects result in either stalemate or grudging withdrawal by worn-down opponents. Even less palatable is the role of regulatory agencies and litigants, who are reduced to squabbling over the details of wetlands mitigation and threats to endangered species, when the real issues are the basic need for the project and the effects it will have on regional quality of life.
This need not be. The ongoing debate over the reconstruction of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, which is the southern crossing of the Potomac by the Capitol Beltway, is a case in point. Now there are clearly substantial regional implications of a project of this size to remove a major Beltway bottleneck. It will facilitate interstate commuting between Maryland and Virginia and perhaps induce some development as a result. But it could also be argued that it will hold development around the Beltway and prevent it from spreading farther out. It may also simply move the bottleneck a few miles one way or the other.
I do not know what the answer is, but my point is that these are not the issues under discussion. Instead, the regulatory reviews are focused on such details as where the material dredged from the river will be taken, and how much the habitat will be shaded by the bridge. I am not saying these are unimportant issues, but they are not the issues of regional impact that should be getting attention.
What if, instead, folks were to reach consensus that we should move forward with the new bridge and accept the fact that the consequences for development are debatable, but to agree as a corollary that all plans for another crossing farther south be permanently removed from future consideration in any plans. That might be a compromise folks could live with. All we need is a planning process that encourages those kinds of decisions and tradeoffs to be made.
Right now, it doesn’t exist. Instead, we go from project to project with proponents and foes in constant conflict. What we need is a forum for real debates and real options to be discussed, for consensus to be built on the best options, and for full discussions of alternatives that can be presented in time to be realistic. The basic shift must be from the mentality of “predict and provide” with the focus on projects, to what my English critic calls “predict and prevent,” with the focus on congestion and the goal to move people efficiently from place to place.
The greatest tragedy of the present system is that by not bringing all the interests together in this way, we are failing to take advantage of the very creative and innovative provisions of TEA-21, the latest comprehensive federal transportation statute. There are so many opportunities now for environmental and transportation interests to work together on everything from scenic easements to stormwater retrofits. But because there is no open forum to talk, we seem condemned to fight over a few trees here and a strip of wetland there. Surely we can do better.