New roads are marketed to the public as a way to make our commute quicker, faster and easier. I emphasize “marketed.”
Those who propose or approve them are well aware that new roads are about economic development. Any benefit for commuters is incidental and short-term. The people who already live in a community always blame developers for wanting to build more houses, more shopping centers and more strip malls. If you want to slow down development, start watching road construction.
If you bring up the words “induced demand” to knowledgable transportation planners and politicians, they will wince knowingly and quickly try to change the subject. Induced demand means that an increase in supply is quickly met by an increase in demand. Put in transportation terms, more roads means more traffic.
Northern Virginia commuters such as myself who have commuted for the past fifty years are well aware of the disconnect between promised relief and actual improvements in traffic. Charles Marohn, Founder of Strong Towns, probably said it best, “Trying to solve congestion by making roadways wider is like trying to solve obesity by buying bigger pants."
New roads are supported by business leaders because they understand induced demand. They know that all new roads will fill with traffic quickly because of the economic development that follows. All of that economic development requires new roads as old roads fill up. Building those roads is also profitable. It is a never-ending cycle.
The ultimate irony is that many road improvements have nothing to do with Prince William County residents. They make it easier for folks living in Fauquier, Stafford and Culpeper counties and even Fredericksburg to pass through our county to get to jobs in Fairfax County, the District of Columbia and other points. We subsidize and increase the economic development that happens in those places I just mentioned. You might stand on Route 28 and wave as they drive through.
The Prince William County 2040 Comprehensive Plan Update is being developed as we speak. It is a chance for “the rest of us” to weigh in and help define what our Community should look like for future generations. Look it over, and submit your comments.
It’s up to Chair Ann Wheeler and the Prince William Board of County Supervisors to decide whether we become a seamless, ambiguous expansion of Fairfax County or retain the rural charm that attracted so many of us to live here.
Unfortunately, as with all things, follow the money to get a glimpse of what our future will look like. There is just too much money to be made building roads and the homes and businesses that follow.
The cost of “selling” these ideas to the board and the public is a modest and tax-deductible business expense. Perhaps the greatest economic opportunity is for the land-use lawyers, consultants, planners, and those people who specialize in making Powerpoint presentations, pasteboard charts and graphs and sales collateral. The “rest of us” by comparison are relatively outgunned and outmatched. While we are distracted with jobs, families and surviving COVID-19, those whose business is economic development are quietly paving over our community.
Strong Towns, a project devoted to alternatives, is worth a look. I like their no new roads campaign. That may sound dramatic, but it’s actually a viable strategy if we wish to save the rural charm that attracted us to Prince William County.
Northern Virginia continues to think inside a box paved with asphalt. It’s time to break out of that asphalt box and look for new ideas. If we don’t build more roads, they won’t come.
Al Alborn is a political and social activist in Prince William County. His column appears every other week. You can learn more about Al at www.alborn.net.
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