- Associated Press - Friday, June 26, 2015

WASHINGTON (AP) - It’s no secret to people who live in the Washington area that it has some of the worst traffic congestion in the country.

According to Census Bureau data, the more than 3.1 million people who commute to work in the District of Columbia and its Maryland and Virginia suburbs spend an average of 34 minutes getting to their destinations. Only the New York metropolitan area has longer average commute times.

And for people who drive to work, Washington is the worst in the country, at 31.8 minutes on average. The area also has the second-worst average commute time for carpoolers, at 35.8 minutes.

What’s not clear is how regional leaders will respond to the strain on infrastructure as the population continues to expand. The region has 5.9 million residents and is expected to gain 400,000 more by 2020, according to Census projections.

Here’s a look at various transportation projects that may or may not happen:

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SUBWAY: The Metro subway system is expanding to Dulles International Airport in northern Virginia, with new stations expected to open by 2020. Whether that will cut down on average commute times, however, remains unclear.

The first phase of Metro’s new silver line, which will ultimately go to Dulles, opened last year, and one consequence has been an increase in the number of people embarking on hour-plus commutes from economically distressed sections of the District and Maryland to booming Tysons Corner in northern Virginia. The silver line has also put pressure on other subway lines through northern Virginia that use the same tracks when they cross into the District, and there are no plans for construction to ease those choke points.

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LIGHT RAIL: Republican Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland, elected on promises to cut taxes and rein in government waste, faces a defining decision of his term in whether to move forward with a 16-mile light-rail link between two Metro subway lines in the Maryland suburbs. Hogan said during his campaign that Maryland “simply cannot afford” the so-called Purple Line, but advocates argue that he is underestimating the economic-development benefits.

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STREETCARS: Perhaps no proposed transit projects in the region have been so politically fraught. In Arlington County, Virginia, John Vihstadt was elected to the Board of Supervisors on the basis of his opposition to a 5-mile streetcar project. After he joined the board, Arlington voted to kill the streetcar. In the District of Columbia, a proposed 2.4-mile streetcar line has been beset by delays and cost overruns and still has no opening date. Mayor Muriel Bowser, who took office in January, has promised to push ahead with the project, which has cost more than $200 million so far.

Questions remain about how the streetcar line will fit into the District’s transportation network because it lacks direct links to existing transit. Last year, the D.C. Council voted to cut long-term funding for future streetcar lines. The late former mayor Marion Barry, who served on the council at the time, said the District would be paying $2,000 to subsidize each ride on the trolley, calling it “a streetcar to nowhere.”

“People are understandably burned out on the arguments, the back and forth, the poor execution,” said Gabe Klein, the District’s former transportation chief and a streetcar supporter. “Streetcars are an excellent investment. I think, on the East Coast in particular, we have a lot to learn about executing and building them.”

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BUSES: One way that jurisdictions are supplementing transit is to expand bus lines that are run by local governments as opposed to the Metro transit authority. Arlington has beefed up bus service along Columbia Pike, site of the now-defunct streetcar, and just this month, the District added a new line to its popular network of Circulator buses, this one circling the National Mall.

Vihstadt said locally run bus service was a cost-effective way for Arlington and other localities to address transportation needs.

“I’m optimistic that we will keep pace on the pike with economic development, residential and commercial development and that we will have a transit system that will be user-friendly, have the adequate capacity and stimulate further economic development,” he said.

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TOLL LANES: In Virginia, lanes on interstates 95 and 395 that once were reserved for carpoolers are now available to solo drivers willing to pay tolls. The toll lanes were also expanded southward into Stafford County and were added to the Capital Beltway between Springfield and McLean. Last month, Virginia transportation officials announced that they’d make the same change on Interstate 66, which connects Tysons Corner with the District. Currently, the section of I-66 inside the Beltway is restricted to carpoolers during the morning and afternoon rush hours, but officials plan to convert that section of the highway to toll lanes by 2017, with pricing determined by traffic. The toll revenue could ultimately fund an expansion of the highway if the change doesn’t reduce congestion, but there are no firm plans to widen the road.

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Follow Ben Nuckols on Twitter at https://twitter.com/APBenNuckols.

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