We Still Might Make the Wrong Decision, But at Least We’ll Do It with Better Information!

The big transportation story played up by the Washington Post yesterday was the dedication of the first of two drawbridges in the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, which will expand the capacity of Interstate 95 across the Potomac River. I’m sure that’s exciting news to commuters, who have to wait only three more weeks for the long-awaited span to finally open. But the important transportation news — important in the sense that it may presage changes to Business As Usual — was buried in a two-paragraph insert in the Fairfax County Times.

Addressing the Dulles Area Transportation Association, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine announced a regional pilot program that will use Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties as a testing ground for Senate Bill 699. That bill, which will officially go into effect in 2007, allows localities to submit rezoning and comprehensive plan changes to VDOT staff for an analysis of the transportation impact. The idea is to alert local governments when growth resulting from proposed zoning changes would overwhelm local transportation facilities.

The law is the first tentative step toward linking transportation and land use planning. The Kaine administration has picked a good place to start: Much of the new growth in Washington New Urban Region is funneling into the Loudoun/Prince William area where the transportation infrastructure clearly does not exist to accommodate it. VDOT analysis will no doubt confirm what everyone already knows. Now we will be able to put numbers on the problem.

What the new law cannot do is tell us what to do with the information. Should Loudoun and Prince William impose growth controls, which might funnel growth to outlying localities even less prepared to handle it? Should they institute crash campaigns to build more roads, as Prince William appears to be doing? Or… and long-time readers knew this was coming… should the state acknowledge that one way to accommodate growth is to allow the Washington New Urban Region to grow up, by means of greater density in core municipalities, so it is not forced to grow out?

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6 responses to “We Still Might Make the Wrong Decision, But at Least We’ll Do It with Better Information!”

  1. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    Where is the information that shows that growing up will result in less cogestion? New York? Hong Kong? Bangkok?

    Even if you wind up with slightly less travel per person, you wind up with a lot more travel per square mile = congestion, pollution, waste.

  2. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Ray, I didn’t say that “growing up” results in “less congestion.” What I said was that it is another way to accommodate growth. If driven by market forces (as opposed to social engineering), I would argue that “growing up” instead of “growing out” can provide greater mobility at less cost.

    And when I say “growing up,” I’m not thinking of Manhattan. I do believe that, under free market conditions, much of the Virginia portion of the Washington New Urban Region would evolve into something that looks like Arlington.

  3. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    I agree there is room for both, and Schwartz touched on this in the previous post.

    I’m not so sure where the greater mobility comes from if you are stuck in traffic. Maybe I just think that what George Tyahla calls the “congestion tax” is more onerous than you do, so again, it is a question of degree rather than a true disagreement.

    I’m not so sure about the Arlington argument either. It is only right along the tracks that Arlington has much high rise: A block or two away, and you are back into single family homes and garden apartments. What Arlington does not have is campus style work centers like the Micron plant in Manassas or the cement, steel, asphalt and brick manufacturing of outlying areas. Not to mention the crane and equipment rental yards that are required to build a place like Arlington.

    As EMR points out, if “the market” really adopted places like Arlington, you would not need very much else, except for the gazillion or so things that Arlington can’t provide. A little bit of that goes a long way, as far as people are concerned.

    We might see pockets of mini- Arlington-type developments: West Falls Church, Tyson’s, and Reston are the current best bets, based on Rail to Dulles. But then you need to figure on Springfield, and Woodbridge, to support the Brac move to Belvoir, Merrifield-Dun Loring, Fairfax, Fair Lakes-Fair Oaks, Centreville, Manassas. If you make that list long enough, then it starts to look like your argument is correct.

    But those centers will need to be connected by much better transportation than they now have, and there is no stomach for the expenditures that will take.

    As a result, you will see more pressure on Culpeper, Warrenton, and Winchester and Leesburg.

    But here is the thing, if growing up and not out does not reduce congestion (and some claim it does), where is the benefit? It isn’t in lower taxes, it isn’t in lower living costs, even if you take transportation into account.

    When you say the law is the first tentative step towards linking land use and transportation, well, it doesn’t sound much like a free market.

  4. Anonymous Avatar

    If you believe Jim Bacon, EMR and the Piedmont Environmental Council believe in a free market, you also believe in the tooth fairy. Mao could take lessons from those boys on top down economic (mis)management.

  5. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Anonymous 2:30, I stand second to no man in the defense of free market principles. I challenge you to describe what kind of vision you have for the future, and how you proposed to get there, and we’ll see who relies more upon the free market – you or me.

    If you think that the current system of institutional arrangements resembles a “free market” in any way, shape or form, you are the deluded one.

    To describe my philosophy as Maoist, top-down management shows only that you have not taken the slightest effort to read my writing with any care.

  6. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    Gee. I didn’t mean to unleash that firestorm by my comment. Jim has clearly stated again and again that we need less zoning law and not more.

    Let’s back up a little.

    “The idea is to alert local governments when growth resulting from proposed zoning changes would overwhelm local transportation facilities.”

    Then, what can the local government do?

    As Jim points out, they can isnstitute growth controls or they can have a crash course in new road building. The plans for new roads would presumably also have to be studied by the state, as roads also count as development and engender more development.

    So, after the county gets the bad news, they can impose growth controls or they can develop other plans and wait for the state to issue more guidance. (See Jim’s post above about waiting for VDOT beaurocracy.)

    Either way, the result is (effectively) growth controls. And given the predilection to preventing growth anywhere anyway, this is just that more impetus towards either growth controls or what amounts to a strategic stalemate.

    As Jim notes, if growth controls happen (or if growth is stalemated by another round of VDOT delays) then the growth will go someplace else. Either it will skip over to less densely populated and even less prepared areas, or as Jim points out it will move in and up instead.

    But now you have a new county involved and the proposed development there will have to go to VDOT for analysis……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

    It hardly sounds like a blow in favor of a free market.

    This goes back to my previous question. Where is the benefit? It isn’t in lower taxes, it isn’t in lower living costs, even if you take transportation into account.

    The Minnesota DOT conducted a study of land use alternatives, entitled “Transportation-Related Impacts of Different Regional Land-Use Scenarios” Among their conclusions was this In all the scenarios, accessibility to jobs, and by implication congestion and air pollution,
    were worse in 2020 than in the present. That is, even the most extreme changes to current
    land use did not reverse present trends,…

    This is what I have been saying. Land use reform does nothing to help your current problems and the best you can expect is that your problems will grow a little more slowly.

    If that is not enough here are some more gems from their study.

    The primary beneficiaries of compact housing development are residents of outlying areas that remain sparsely populated as a result. Conversely, central city residents are better off when population is allowed to spread out, because the associated problems are moved to outlying areas.

    In all the scenarios much of the congestion was concentrated on a relatively small amount of roadway.

    The level of air pollution rises dramatically toward the center of the region. As a result,
    the high population density scenarios, because they housed more people in the area of
    highest pollution, had the lowest overall amount of pollution, but the highest degree of exposure of people to pollution.

    In terms of accessibility to jobs, there was no way of placing jobs that would be best for a
    large fraction of the population….. moving some
    jobs to be closer to some people inevitably makes them farther away from others. Better overall balancing of jobs and housing at a regional scale did have some aggregate benefit, but again at the expense of certain locations.

    The actual location of jobs seemed to matter less to accessibility than did the level of
    congestion that the placement implied. Given free-flow conditions, all the scenarios had
    similar accessibility levels.

    Transit tended to have a fairly limited role in alleviating problems. It did have a
    somewhat bigger impact in the areas with the biggest problems, primarily in the central

    and finally

    For example, the scenarios with low population density and/or high commercial density tend to have worse congestion; but it is not clear to what extent this
    congestion might be alleviated by a limited set of road improvements in the most severely
    affected areas. To say that downtown size suburban employment centers will be built, but that no
    improvements will be made to the surrounding road network is obviously unrealistic, and
    analyzing the scenario under this assumption very likely makes it appear worse than it really
    would be.

    Now, this is a DOT study, so they have a dog in the fight. But in addition to the quotes above they offer caveats that affect their conclusions: they don’t claim to have the answer for everything from congestion to obesity to the black plague. However, it is cosistent with whatever else I have been able to learn, and with what I observe to be true.

    So I’ll repeat the question: if you grow up instead of out, where is the benefit? It is not in taxes. It is not in living costs. It is not in exposure to pollution. It is not in accessibility levels. Even the American Farm trust says lack of farm production is nowhere in our future, so saving farmland isn’t the issue.

    What is the point of championing a law that not only will lead to less free market activity, but probably won’t do any good, or very little? Why expend all that energy and angst to create a bunch of laws that many people will be unhappy with, will have to be administered at enormous expense, and won’t make any substantial difference in the end?

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