The economy in the Washington metropolitan region will quadruple over the next 30 years but, despite an expansion of the METRO line to Washington Dulles International Airport, regional transportation will be almost as dependent upon the automobile in 2040 as it is today. That’s the central argument of “Connecting Transportation Investment and the Economy in Metropolitan Washington,” published by the George Mason University Center for Regional Analysis.
Although the report did not make specific policy recommendations relating to transportation in the Washington region, it did assert that continued infrastructure investment is needed. Projected growth of the Washington region’s GRP (gross regional product) from $429 billion in 2010 to $1,849 billion in 2040 assumes that “adequate infrastructure investments are made to support economic growth,” the study says.
The region’s economic future will continue to rely on significant investment in transportation infrastructure — investments that will need to provide key transit support for some economic centers and major support and investments for auto access and connections for almost all economic centers.
The GMU report was prepared for the 2030 Group, a business advocacy group comprised mainly of businesses and individuals associated with the development sector. The authors, John McClain and Alan Pisarski, did not recommend specific transportation projects.
There is a lot of inertia built into the transportation system. The ability to shift transportation modes “is very weak over time,” says the executive summary. Half (52.3%) of the growth in trips will consist of drive-alones in autos, while 28.7% will consist of drivers with passengers. Public transit will accommodate 6.1% of the growth, while biking/walking will account for 12.9%.
Interestingly, the study finds that the vast majority of economic growth taking place in “regional activity centers” will be in Washington, D.C., with Downtown D.C. grabbing the lion’s share, $146.3 billion, and the federal center in Southwest Washington picking up another $47.5 billion.
Outside the District, most growth will gravitate to Virginia activity centers. Tysons Corner will emerge as the region’s uncontested No. 2 commercial district in the region, growing by $58.4 billion, with strong showings in Arlington, Merrifield, Reston and Dulles. The only activity center in Maryland to experience significant growth will be the Shady Grove/King Farm area.
It may not have been the intent of the authors or sponsors, but the report can be seen as confirmation of the thesis, long propounded on this blog, that growth and development has experienced a major inflection point, shifting from the metropolitan periphery back toward the regional core — in this case, to Washington, D.C., Arlington, Tysons, and the Dulles Corridor.
The authors based their finding that commuting patterns will remain unchanged upon the modal stability exhibited during 1990-2010, a period during which growth occurred mainly on the metropolitan periphery in areas not served by public transportation. This is curious. Their own projections show that employment centers will remain focused overwhelmingly on the urban core. They provide no explanation as to why past trends would continue to apply.
Bacon’s bottom line: I’m not sure how useful an exercise this study is. Making 30-year projections for the Washington economy is inherently risky, given the massive uncertainties that exist regarding federal spending over the next 10 to 20 years. Personally, I find it inconceivable that the regional economy could quadruple in size over only 30 years. That projection, quite simply, is a leap of faith. The projections are interesting… but nothing upon which to base the expenditure of billions of infrastructure dollars.
Moreover, the statement that the region will require more transportation infrastructure is so obvious as to be a non sequitur. Yes, if you increase population by more than 25% and quadruple the economy, you will need more infrastructure. The question is, what kind? More heavy rail? More buses or street cars? More bike lanes? More walkable streets in mixed-use neighborhoods? More HOT lanes in regional arterials? More traffic light synchronization? Or more roads to greenfields like the proposed Outer Beltway? The GMU study doesn’t provide much guidance.