Road to traffic hell is paved with no ideas


WASHINGTON -- They say death is the great leveler, but I'll vote for sewer plants.

Even in the cemetery, tombstones separate privileged and poor; but all's egalitarian at the huge Blue Plains regional wastewater facility upriver of me here on the Potomac.

White and black mingle amiably there, the powerful and the meek, Democrat with Republican. The president and his Cabinet swirl and eddy, indistinguishable from the newest African refugee cabdriver.

Blue Plains is a marvel, a single, Brobdingnagian conduit receiving the swoosh and gurgle of more than 2 million metropolites -- nearly 15 percent of all who live and flush within the Chesapeake Bay's six-state watershed, stretching nearly from Vermont to North Carolina.

So well has the plant performed that phosphorus, a key sewage pollutant of the Potomac, has dropped in two decades from 8 million pounds annually to a trifling 60,000 -- a 99.992 percent reduction. And the river here has responded, with more underwater grasses, more fish, more waterfowl. Within sight of me, professional bass guides make their living -- one of the success stories of the Chesapeake cleanup.

I have plenty of time to contemplate such progress, because my own progress has been arrested. Here on the Wilson Bridge, where the Capital Beltway's southern side crosses the river, I'm stalled, barbecuing amid congested traffic, inhaling air that is an acrid affront to the nation's Clean Air Act.

Beneath me flows the river, an environmental success story, a triumph of technology over rapidly growing numbers of people. (On a per capita basis, the billion-dollar Blue Plains plant may be a bargain.)

So why do I feel as if we are sprinters in a marathon, winning laps while blowing the race; exceeding water quality standards while the quality of our lives becomes so much heavy traffic?

Consider our best plans to date for ameliorating D.C.'s traffic mess with a proposed $3 billion bypass of the bypass, casting a loop of up to 93 miles, with 28 major interchanges, around a million acres of relatively undeveloped countryside in Maryland and Virginia.

And for what?

Vehicle miles driven in the region would rapidly increase some 40 percent over and above the 68 percent jump expected without a new bypass -- this from a draft environmental impact statement from bypass supporters.

Bottom line, according to the impact statement: Average speeds on the region's roads would rise from 32.2 mph to 33 mph, a gain of .8 mph for the taxpayers' $3 billion.

More good news comes from a recent study by transportation planners in the Baltimore region: Despite a projected $3.7 billion expenditure by 2020 on highways and mass transit, average highway speeds should fall from 50.1 mph to 42.8 mph.

Cars by 2020, of course, will be far less crash prone and less polluting; propelled by electricity or more exotic technologies and equipped with computer-aided crash avoidance systems.

Indeed, it is in wonderfully clean and safe vehicles that we will proceed into traffic hell.

And for what; also, for how many? Those questions need to be posed and discussed, and extended to more than traffic, which is only a surrogate for the broader quality of our lives in a more crowded future.

Theoretically, we can do a lot to stave off such a dispiriting fate. With transportation, for example, we can recognize that increasing the size of roads will no more solve traffic problems than bolting a bigger outlet pipe to Blue Plains would have cleaned up the Potomac.

We can think, instead, in terms of improving mobility, using a whole range of incentives and disincentives to reduce the use of autos. Such concepts go well beyond car pooling and light rail construction. Without land-use planning that curtails rampant sprawl development on a regionwide basis, we will forever lock out options for reducing drive time.

We also must confront something even more fundamental -- our rapid population growth.

Maryland's population, now near 5 million, has doubled since World War II and shows every sign of adding another million or so in the next few decades.

It is interesting to look at where the increase is coming from. During the last decade, the state has gained more than twice as many residents from people moving here as it has from an excess of births over deaths.

Moreover, rapid growth creates so many immediate pressures that discussion of the long term gets short shrift.

Another problem, often ignored, is the extreme mobility of population within our region; leapfrogging, willy-nilly, from, say, Baltimore, to Towson, then to Columbia and Westminster, then to Frederick and Delta, Pa.

PTC What do we do about all this? We start, as with traffic, by recognizing that our quality of existence gets worse, inevitably, if we don't do something different.

We start by seriously discussing the questions: how many people, and to what end?

Of course, a huge part of our quality of life is linked to economic prosperity. But is a flourishing economy linked to a growing population?

I thought perhaps the most impressive aspect of a very impressive Winter Olympic games was the obviously high quality of life among Norwegians; like many Western European countries, Norway has little or no population growth.

Respected thinkers like Herman Daly, a former economist with the World Bank, now at the University of Maryland, argue compellingly for separating concepts of economic development (good), from economic growth (not necessarily good).

Much of Daly's theorizing deals with a global and national scale. What would he say, I asked recently, to county officials who espoused the "grow or die" sentiment about progress?

"I'd ask them to think about what should be the end point," Daly said. "Do they want 10 million people in their county? Surely not; well, how many, then? "

Or consider a thought from Chuck Foster, an environmental educator with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation who has a waterman's background.

After I gave a pep talk to CBF's staff on the need for individual sacrifice to offset population growth, he asked: "So this means that I have to give up more and more of my fishing every year to share with millions more who have never even lived here?"

Up to some point, you might call that statement selfish. But at some point, Foster is right: We will share ourselves out of a livable environment.

Where is -- or was -- that point? What do we risk by exceeding it? For what gains?

There are no easy answers, but we'd better start asking the questions.

Maybe things will seem clearer, if I can just get out of this awful Washington traffic.

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