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December 28, 2012 Published in Traffic & Transportation

Milestones And Millstones: The Best And The Worst In Transportation In 2012

For motorists in the Washington metro area, our 2012 transportation experience was one heck of a roller coaster ride with some great highs, but some real lows as well, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic.  It is time to rank and rant as we ponder the milestones and frown upon the millstones in transportation in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia during 2012.

“While we opened a couple of great new transportation facilities to ease delays for motorists in our region, Mother Nature also closed many roads throughout the region for many days with flooding, downed trees and power lines, as the “derecho” stormed through Washington just as tens of thousands were preparing to head out for July 4th vacations,” noted Mahlon G. (Lon) Anderson, AAA Mid-Atlantic’s Managing Director of Public and Government Affairs.  “ And who can forget the pain at the pump as we suffered record high gas prices that much of the year?”

Topping the list of great new additions to better move traffic in our region are the 495 Express Lanes, which debuted last month in Northern Virginia. Also a worthy addition is the new exit ramp in the District that allows drivers to seamlessly drive from freeway (I-695) to freeway (northbound DC 295).

And transportation funding could merit both a best and worst in 2012. With sorely need long-term investment in highways and public transportation projects at the federal, state and local levels, this year we finally got a two-year federal transportation funding bill after years of continuing resolutions. That bill promises to help rebuild public trust in the nation’s federal transportation program by eliminating earmarks, promoting road and bridge safety, and by better focusing federal dollars on national goals and objectives.

On the other hand, in both Maryland and Virginia, the transportation funding spigot is running dry, and both state legislatures once again in 2012, failed to enact structural fixes to address their funding crises.

“Just maintaining our region’s heavily used roads and bridges—not to mention our mass transit systems—is hugely expensive, and that’s before you add projects to improve our mobility, which cost billions more,” Anderson noted. “A major  ‘boo of the year’ to both the Maryland and Virginia Legislatures for failing to provide critical long term transportation funding.”

Below is a summary of some of  the highlights and low-lights on the transportation front in the year that was 2012.

 

THE BEST: MILESTONES

Express Yourself! The Début Of The 495 Express Lanes. The $2 billion, all-electronic toll Interstate 495 Express Lanes officially debuted last month. They’re a big deal because for the first time they allow the Capitol Beltway to offer HOV-3 connections with I-95/395, I-66, and the Dulles Toll Road. Equally important, the project gives gridlock-weary drivers on the Capital Beltway in Northern Virginia the opportunity to pay to escape the world-class congestion that bedevils motorists on the Virginia portion of the Capital Beltway. The three-person carpools, of course, ride free along the 14-mile-long route.

Virginia Enacts Tough DUI Ignition Interlock Law. Virginia’s new ignition interlock device law is being hailed as one of the toughest in the region.  If you are caught red-handed driving over the legal limit and convicted of drunk driving, the law will force you to install a DUI ignition interlock device in your vehicle. The device will trigger the horn and flashing lights, if the operator has a BAC that exceeds 0.02 percent, or if the driver fails to take the test.  Supporters say the new law will quadruple the number of persons required to use the device. Last year, 28,162 drivers were convicted of DUI in Virginia, according to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). The new law went into effect this past July.

Drunk Driving Testing Returns To The Nation’s Capital. After a nearly scandalous 19-month hiatus, the District resumed administering the breath test to detect the presence of alcohol in drivers suspected of driving drunk this fall. The program was halted in 2010, when it was revealed the breath-analyzers were producing inaccurate results because they hadn’t been properly calibrated, reportedly resulting in nearly 400 drivers being convicted based on faulty chemical tests.  To restore integrity to the revamped program, Mayor Vincent Gray and the District Council pushed through tough emergency legislation that doubles the mandatory minimum jail sentences for repeat offenders and for those offenders convicted of having a blood alcohol concentration of .20 or higher.

Maryland Work Zone Safety Improves.  Work zone crashes, fatalities and injuries are at a more than ten year low in Maryland, state officials reported this August. Since Maryland launched its work zone speed camera program in 2010, work zone fatalities have declined 67%, crashes are down 16.8%, and the number of persons injured has fallen 11.8%. On top of that, Maryland appears on track to issue fewer  speeding tickets to motorists with its work zone speed cameras in 2012 than it did in 2011. In fact, speeding violations in SafeZones construction sites have decreased by more than 80 percent, state officials explain.

Road Construction Boom In The Region.  A road building spree is underway in the nation’s capital.  The $390 million 11th Street Bridge Project, one of the largest local construction projects in the city’s history, is already well along and will provide commuters direct links between the Southeast-Southwest Freeway and in both directions along DC-295 and to local streets on both sides of the Anacostia River. A new exit ramp on the project is completed and it is already shortening motorists’ trips into and in and around the city. In both Maryland and Virginia, new HOT lane projects are underway on I-95 to give car poolers free  and fast passage and for all other drivers, faster travel but for a toll. In Maryland, a $1.03 billion Express Toll Lanes addition will ease traffic bottlenecks and gridlock on the most congested portion of Interstate 95 north of Baltimore.  This 8-mile segment stretches from the I-895 (N) split in east Baltimore City, to north of MD 43 in White Marsh and is slated to open in 2014. In Virginia, construction started this year on the $1 billion I-95 Express Lanes project between Edsall Road in Fairfax County and Garrisonville Road in Stafford County. It is due for completion in early 2015.

THE WORST: MILLSTONES

Preliminary Data: Highway Death Toll Increases In USA. The early estimates are in, and they are tragic. They indicate 25,580 people died in traffic fatalities across the USA during the first nine months of 2012 (January-September). Those chilling figures represent a 7.1 percent increase from the same time period in 2011. If the trend holds, the early estimates would represent the largest increase in the highway death toll during the first nine months of any year since 1975 when the year the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) began collecting fatality data. The good news is that this is preliminary data and the numbers could still change and trend downward.

The High Cost of Motor Fuels. The average annual price cost for motor fuel for 2012 will be the most expensive on record, costing motorists an extra $2 billion to drive. Here’s why. Motorists across the country will end up spending $483 billion on gasoline this year compared to $481 billion in 2011.

Camera Ticket-A-Palooza. The District government collected a record haul -$84.9 million - in automated traffic enforcement tickets and fines during FY 2012. But all that ticketing generated a backlash that shook the city’s political establishment and spawned a task force to take a hard look at why speed camera fines were much higher in the District (ranging from $75 to $250) than they are in Maryland (where it’s a seemingly paltry $40  per speed camera infraction). To stem the political fallout, Mayor Vincent Gray and the District Council dueled over who would lower traffic fines the lowest and wrangled over who has the authority to increase speed limits. It is a hot political mess, yet the drama and the ticketing continue.

Meanwhile, a similar brouhaha is sweeping many jurisdictions in Maryland over speed camera programs that issue tickets to Marylanders who were not speeding and in some instances were even stationary or were ticketed in fictional school zones. Look for the Legislature to have its hands full with this failure to regulate what has become massive policing for profit in many jurisdictions.

The Weather Overground.  In the wake of the “derecho,” that monster thunderstorm of June 29,  entire neighborhoods were left not only in the dark, but with live wires and trees closing their roads—a mess that took some a week to clear, just as we were preparing for major July 4 travel.  With hurricane Sandy,  the weather delivered an even more devastating blow to communities and transportation in many of our Mid-Atlantic coastal communities, again delivering a huge reminder that unruly and rowdy weather conditions  really can have the final say over our mobility regionally.

Hopeless In Hopewell. “Abandon all hope ye who enter here!” Today’s Dante’s immortal line could apply to the plight of motorists ticketed along a nearly two-mile segment of Interstate 295 near Hopewell, Virginia. That notorious stretch of road has been dubbed the “Million Dollar Mile” because of the penchant of Sheriff’s deputies in Hopewell to hand out thousands of tickets to unsuspecting motorists and out-of-state drivers. As a result,  revenue from traffic fines for the little bitty town along the interstate soared by more than a 1000 percent (1150%)  to nearly $2 million last year from an infinitesimally lackluster amount of $160,000 back 2008.

Transportation Funding—No Legislative Action so The Toll Man Cometh—with much Controversy:  Although the Federal government did deliver a two year transportation funding bill, both the Maryland and Virginia Legislatures shamefully failed again in 2012 to enact structural fixes to address their funding crises. As a result, tolls are becoming the de facto funding mechanism for roads-- and even mass transit.

In Virginia, debates continue to rage over sharply escalating tolls on the Dulles Toll Road to pay for the Dulles Corridor (Silver Line) Metrorail Project  extension from  Falls Church to Wiehle Avenue in Reston and eventually  through Reston, Herndon, and Dulles Airport to Route 772/Ashburn in Loudoun County. The outrageous funding scheme is requiring toll road motorists to foot almost 60% of the costs for the new Metro line. Motorists face a 22 percent  in toll on New Year’s Day. The cost of a one-way trip increases from $2.25 to $2.75.

Another major battle is brewing over VDOT’s tolling proposal for the Interstate 95. VDOT is floating the notion of charging motorists $4 and big rig truckers $12 to traverse the interstate. In reaction, hundreds of petitions and letters of opposition are circulating both in Virginia and eastern North Carolina, upset about the notion of imposing hefty tolls on an existing interstate, something that 66% of Virginians find anathema, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic’s 2011 transportation poll.

In Maryland, motorists are bracing themselves for the largest toll increases in state history. Starting next July 1, motorists will have to shell out $6 to cross the 5.4-mile Bay Bridge in Annapolis as well as the 2.2-mile Harry W. Nice Bridge (US 301). A round-trip on the Baltimore Harbor crossings will set them back $8, and commercial vehicles will have to pay even more. Parsimonious motorists are still upset about the doubling of toll rates at seven toll facilities around the state.

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