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December 15, 2009

Getting There The Hard Way Part 1

Farrell Keough

My time as chairman of the National Region Transportation Planning Board Citizens Advisory Committee is coming to an end – thank heaven they do not give out business cards, as this would be about the size of a bumper sticker – must be a government thing.


Long and short, it has been both a fruitful year as well as a difficult one.


Let’s start with the difficult aspects, shall we?


This committee is composed of 15 people from Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. Six members get elected every year via a vote by the current committee. The remaining nine members are appointed by their respective Transportation Planning Board representative – the 2009 chairman of this Board was County Commissioner Charles Jenkins, hence my appointment as Chair of the advisory panel.


With such a diversity of representation, not only will robust conversations occur, (very diplomatic way of stating what happens) but trying to reach consensus becomes even more problematic.  Some members believe only large urban areas should receive attention. Others believe we should do everything possible to restrict the use of automobiles – even if the money for alternative transportation modes does not exist. Of course, that brings them back full circle to their view that people should only live in large urban areas.


These perspectives are not new. In fact, they were so prevalent in the past, the Citizen Advisory Committee had to be disbanded and reconstituted about a decade ago. When only one perspective, and one that is not held by a preponderance of the public, is put forward, a committee such as this becomes moot.


Last year when I joined this committee, I had little compunction about voicing my opinion that our roads need serious attention. My primary focus was I-270; but this committee focuses on regional perspectives and solutions, so that focus had to be broadened – yet it did not inhibit a concerted effort to promote I-270 as a regional solution. Of course, the efforts did not always fair well. For instance, The Maryland Department of Transportation simply would not pursue Stimulus Funding (ARRA) for I-270 even with the issues of out-of-state drivers filling it up and, of course, the BRAC issue at Ft. Detrick. Funny how our area of the state does not receive the attention from Annapolis that other areas do – maybe it is a voter registration thing.


But good did come from speaking up. A surprising number of other members held similar viewpoints, yet they felt intimidated by those who were pressing these various draconian solutions. We often forget that the “silent majority” needs our voices – it is worth the risk to give them a sense of voice and amity. You will be surprised how many people think in similar terms to you, yet do not express their views and try and influence policy.


As you can see, a dichotomy will often arise with such a group of people. So, how does one bridge that gap and promote a solution to our regional congestion problems?


In the case of this year’s agenda, we promoted a proposal to direct funding of projects based upon a criterion which included a modeling analysis, a cost/benefit analysis, and a regional significance, while still maintaining the importance of state sovereignty in decision making about project funding. While I initially pushed my authority as chairperson to promote this plan, it went through many iterations of committee input, thus achieving a unanimous acceptance by this diverse group.


It is now moving at the speed of government for possible implementation – we will have a forum in the spring of 2010 to develop both buy-in from the various agencies and players as well as fine tune the proposal. What is interesting about this proposal is how ardently the various Transportation Planning Board staff and Departments of Transportation did not like it! You see, it means they can potentially lose their fiefdoms and have to deal with our region rather than simply their pet projects or political agendas. It is often the case that something is worthwhile when it is protested so ardently by those in power – especially those who are unelected having such power.


If you read the proposal, you may find it gets into the weeds a bit much and is difficult to comprehend. That is simply the nature of such complicated issues as regional transportation – nothing is a simple solution and widening a road will not solve all problems – it must be a multi-modal approach.


For instance, Metro is used by only a small percentage of the public, yet we all pay for it either through the gas tax or other taxation mechanisms. But, we have not dealt with the truths that we live in the area of the nation’s Capital and traffic will continue to increase – hence our movement to the second most congested area in the nation! Simply building or widening roads will not solve these problems.


Now that we have looked at some of the political and consensus aspects to long-term planning, let’s look at the myths that abound about transportation. Tomorrow those aspects will be laid out here.


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