As the first decade of this millennium draws to a close, it seems the more things change the more they stay the same when it comes to transportation in the Washington metro area. Metro trains crashed, Virginia rest stops closed, automated traffic cameras made tens of millions from drivers, and more drivers talked and texted while driving; yet, highway deaths declined and work on many critical projects in Virginia and Maryland rushed forward, all part of the region’s transportation tableau of 2009.
Here’s our list of the dozen best and the worst in transportation in our area during 2009, starting with The Worst: The Metro Meltdown: In January, Metro was off to a banner year when President Barack Obama’s inauguration resulted in an all-time ridership record with 1,120,000 passengers. But the fatal June 22 crash that killed nine and left 80 injured and subsequent incidents and reports of safety flaws spooked the public’s confidence in the once venerable system. By year’s end, Metro’s senior managers were being castigated for lapses in safety by long-time supporter Senator Barbara A. Mikulski. For Metro, 2009 will go down in the annals of history as the annus mirabilis, its truly “horrible year.”
No Rest Stops For Virginia’s Weary: Gotta go? That’s tougher to do these days along Virginia’s highways. This year, VDOT shuttered 19 rest areas as a result of an ongoing transportation funding crisis. Fortunately, many of the facilities will reopen soon, fulfilling a campaign promise of incoming Governor Robert McDonnell.
E-Z Come, E-Z Go for E-Z Pass: Talk about a revolt. One month after the Maryland Transportation Authority added a $1.50 per month maintenance fee on E-Z Pass accounts, 19,000 Maryland E-Z Pass customers closed their accounts. According to the MdTA, the previous monthly closure average for such accounts was 670. Ironically, Marylanders had been encouraged to open the free accounts to save the state money by automating toll collections.
Hang It Up! Distracted Driving Proves Deadly: Nearly 6,000 people died in crashes involving distracted driving during 2008, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, accounting for 16% of all traffic fatalities last year, up from 12% in 2007. Yet area drivers don’t seem to be hearing the message. In fact, 56 percent of drivers on the Capital Beltway are distracted by some form of cell phone use, according to a 2009 survey by Transurban-Fluor and AAA Mid-Atlantic. Even more shocking, these cell phone users are more than twice as likely to have had a near miss or traffic incident as a result of their behavior. Worse, approximately one-in-four Beltway drivers are busy reading or writing a text, according to the survey.
Automated Money Making: The District of Columbia and Montgomery County collected nearly $52 million in fines from automated speed camera tickets during FY 2009. And that amount doesn’t include red light camera revenue. D.C. collected a grand total of $40.5 million from its automated traffic enforcement programs. Let’s see, that works out to $33,377,810 in speed camera ticket revenue, according to Metropolitan Police Department data, plus $7,153,622 in revenue from the red-light camera program. In contrast, Montgomery County generated $18.6 million in speed camera revenue during FY 2009. Worse, as local tax revenues plummeted, jurisdictions expanded their automated traffic enforcement programs to help balance budgets. For example, Montgomery County estimated its speed camera program will generate $29.4 million in FY 2010. To hit that goal, it will increase its stationary speed cameras to sixty, adding an additional $15.7 million. The District also plans to add more red-light and speed cameras to generate an additional $15.6 million on top of the record revenue – $40.5 million – it earned last year.
Vehicle Safety Inspections End In D.C.: In October the District of Columbia gave the “deep-six” to mandatory safety inspections for private-owned vehicles in the nation’s capital. Although killing the program would only save the city $400,000 annually, it comes at a time when many motorists are deferring critical vehicle maintenance to save money. Its elimination now will likely increase the number of poorly maintained vehicles on city streets. The message is clear, motorist are for making money (i.e. ticket revenues) and spending to keep them safe is not part of the program.
The Best of 2009:
Highway Deaths Continue To Decline: The number of overall traffic fatalities reported in 2008 hit their lowest level since 1961, according to data from the U.S. Department of Transportation. The fatality rate, which accounts for variables, such as fewer miles traveled, also reached the lowest level ever recorded. During the first half of 2009 the number of highway deaths continued to decrease, the federal agency also reported. It is estimated it dropped about seven percent from January to June. The second quarter of 2009 represented the 13th consecutive quarter of declines in highway fatalities, compared to the same quarter a year earlier.
MD & VA Legislators Vote Nay to Distracted Driving: This year Virginia and Maryland enacted laws that make it illegal to text while driving. The new bans went into effect July 1 in Virginia, and October 1 in Maryland. The violation is a primary offense in Maryland and is punishable by a $500 fine. Unfortunately, it’s only a secondary offense in Virginia with a $20 fine, but the actions of both legislatures now mean texting while driving is illegal throughout our area, since District already has a law. Approximately one in five U.S. drivers admitted to texting while driving at least once in the previous 30 days, according to a survey by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety and AAA clubs nationwide announced a new advocacy campaign designed to enact texting while driving bans in all 50 states within four years.
DUI-Related Fatal Crashes Decline: A decade-long positive trend is continuing in the war against drunk driving. Alcohol-related fatalities dropped seven percent from 2007 to 2008 across the nation. From 2007 to 2008 alcohol-impaired fatalities declined 43.2 percent in the District of Columbia, 12.5 percent in Maryland, and 2.7 percent in Virginia. What’s more, in the Greater Washington area DUI-related deaths declined 20.7 percent during that period of time. Even more impressive, the number of DUI-related deaths is down 44 percent nationwide since the early 1980′s, falling from 21,113 in 1982 to 11,773 in 2008. The U.S. Transportation Secretary cites aggressive drunk driving crackdowns by law enforcement groups for the drop. Kudos also to strong local leadership by groups like WRAP, MADD and yours truly, AAA, that have also likely contributed to the sea change in attitude making the lush behind the wheel no longer loveable and much more illegal.
Seat Belt Usage Up: The seat belt usage rate in Maryland increased to 93.3 percent during 2008, according to NHTSA. Maryland, DC and 15 states achieved seat belt use rates of 90 percent or higher in 2008, the agency noted. Seat belt usage in Virginia only increased a fraction, from 87.1 percent to 87.3 percent. Jurisdictions with stronger belt enforcement laws continue to have “generally higher use rates than those with weaker laws,” according to NHTSA. Although Virginia still lacks a primary enforcement law, its usage rate is still higher than the nationwide average of 83 percent in 2008.
The InterCounty Connector: It may have taken 50 years to get planned and approved, but the tempo of the ICC construction is amazing, with the first segment scheduled to open next fall. In a region where, until recently, it seemed to take forever to build roads, the ICC’s construction stands as a symbol of real progress. That said, the Maryland Transportation Authority (MDTA) stunned the community when it announced toll rates costing drivers who travel the entire 18.8-miles of the six-lane ICC in rush hour $6.15 each way. That gives the ICC the dubious distinction of not only being the most expensive toll road in the area, but also of one of the most expensive on a per-mile basis in America.
Northern VA Projects Moving: Virginia may be broke, but it’s clearly “full steam ahead” for the much needed Beltway HOT lanes between Tysons and Springfield and Tyson’s/Dulles rail projects. Although very different projects, they are both on “fast forward” on their way to providing much needed additional transportation choices and capacity in Northern Virginia. The $1.4 billion, 14 mile Beltway HOT lanes project is scheduled to open in 2013. Similarly, phase one of the Dulles Rail project which includes four stations and runs from East Falls Church through Tysons to Wiehle Avenue, is also slated for completion in 2013. These multi-billion dollar “Mega Projects” are quite an accomplishment for a state that had to close interstate rest stops for lack of money, and they could only have been done through the creative use of public-private partnerships.
AAA Mid-Atlantic has nearly four million members in the District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. It provides a wide range of personal insurance, travel, financial and automotive services through its 50-plus retail branches, regional operations centers, and the Internet.