Evaluating Danica Roem’s Transportation Platform

Danica Roem made history with her general election win in Virginia this month. And transportation policy was a key element of her campaign. Photo: Ted Eytan/Flickr
Danica Roem made history with her general election win in Virginia this month. And transportation policy was a key element of her campaign. Photo: Ted Eytan/Flickr

Danica Roem made history earlier this month, running successfully for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates as an openly transgender candidate. Her win was especially sweet given that she defeated Bob Marshall, a 26-year incumbent who once referred to himself as Virginia’s “chief homophobe” and sponsored an anti-trans “bathroom bill” in the previous session.

Roem has pointed out that while Marshall was campaigning on transphobia, she won by running on bread-and-butter issues that matter to her constituents. And in suburban northern Virginia, one of those issues is traffic congestion.

Danica Roem’s political achievement was inspiring and toppled a notorious bigot. But now that she’s in office, is her traffic prescription any good?

Overall, Roem’s transportation platform is pretty typical for America’s car-centric suburbs. Her flagship proposal is to make more room for motor vehicles on congested Route 28 by widening it from four lanes to six and replacing signalized intersections with highway-style interchanges.

I contacted Stewart Schwartz at the Coalition for Smarter Growth to get some more context. While the Route 28 proposal is the type of road expansion project that generates more traffic and sprawl in the long run, her full transportation platform is more nuanced than that.

Roem represents a sprawling county that faces severe congestion pressure as a result of classic planning mistakes. “We are talking about prototypical American suburban landscape,” said Schwartz. “One that has grown up in a rather haphazard way, without a connected street grid, separating retail from residential and office. Certainly as a result of bad land use planning, it suffers from some really terrible traffic problems without easy fixes.”

In her campaign, Roem said she was motivated by the terrible commutes her mother endured daily. She told WTOP, “There isn’t a conservative or progressive, Democratic or Republican way to build a bridge.”

Maybe not, but there is such a thing as smart, fiscally responsible transportation planning that will reduce traffic pressure, and Roem’s road expansion ideas don’t fit the bill. Her I-28 plan is a something-for-nothing proposition: She estimates it will cost $300 million (the three overpasses alone come in at $80 million), and that it can be paid for by tapping the existing toll revenue stream from I-66.

Like most American elected officials, Roem doesn’t support new tolls. That will severely limit any attempt to rein in traffic in Prince William County, where tolling the busiest roads at peak hours is one of the few tools that could actually reduce congestion.

But Roem’s platform includes some good ideas too, with a section of her website devoted to the need for “smarter growth.”

She opposes the construction of the Bi-County Parkway, a highway connection to Loudon County that Virginia leaders had been considering. By focusing on improving the existing roadways, and not building new, Schwartz said, she’s “applying a fix-it-first approach.”

Roem has also given some thought to what transit can do for her district.

She calls for a short western extension of the Virginia Railway Express (VRE), which currently terminates at a park-and-ride station. Roem proposes a rail extension to the Innovation Technology Park, an office park that has had trouble finding tenants.

Roem also wants to tackle the problem of high transit construction costs. She has proposed a state-sponsored investigation, saying “labor unions are much stronger in Europe than here yet our project costs are more expensive. We need to determine why that’s the case with a conclusive, data-driven study and implement what we learn from it.”

So there you have it. At the moment, Roem isn’t what you would call a transportation reformer. She ran promising a road widening that would probably increase sprawl and do nothing in the long run to improve the region’s traffic nightmare. But she’s not a knee-jerk highway booster either and seems to have an open mind about transportation policy solutions. Following her historic win, let’s see how she steers the approach to transportation and land use in northern Virginia.

  • WQ4

    If she is truly committed to “fix-it-first,” that would be a win. This is a principle which might get us to fiscal sanity.

    FWIW, the spelling of her last name in the photo caption does not agree with the spelling in the article.

  • disqus_1pvtRUVrlr

    It’s great that Danica unseated one of the worst legislators in our GA, but I can’t help but feel like this story was written only because of the SJW angle. Any other run-of-the-mill politician with a bland transportation “platform” wouldn’t get a second glance.

  • AndrewDC

    It’s also worth pointing out that she’s in favor of diversifying Prince William’s economic base and wants to see more jobs closer to where people live. Like Schwartz said, there have certainly been decades of planning mistakes, but she has demonstrated the knowledge that traffic can also be addressed by better land use choices. She’s also supported extending a secondary arterial as long as it’s environmentally sensitive that could provide a more connected grid/more options for arterial roadway usage. She’s definitely got more in her platform than the “expand, expand, expand” mantra one normally sees, and that’s worth something.

  • Monica Miller

    As a fellow tgirl, I am super proud of Danica.

    As a transit geek, I share your disdain for the usual plan-of-attack with suburban traffic – more asphalt.

    As a DC area resident familiar with Route 28, however, I understand that the reality is that Manassas is never going to be Amsterdam. Sometimes there are no immediate options other than more asphalt. Once a place has developed in the usual modern suburban model, you are just not going to get people to ride buses (at least not locally, and few in Manassas commute to DC), unless they are too poor to operate cars.

  • Mark

    The Route 28 area she is championing is a complex location with four different jurisdictions(Farifax, Prince William, Manassas, and Manassas Park) with four different priorities for the roadway and a historical/environmentally sensitive park and watershed in the vicinity. Unfortunately, transit service was not make a priority by the consortium of other elected officials.

  • ride_it_like_you_stole_it

    What if Route 28 was widened from 4 to 6 with the two new lanes dedicated to buses, shuttles, carpools, and/or motorcycles? Could that be a viable win-win approach?

  • Mark

    It is going to be widened from 4 to 8 lanes in Fairfax County and should be two different four lane roadways in Prince William. One of the lane in Fairfax could be HOV/transit.

  • Monica Miller

    You’re preaching to the choir on this sort of approach. Not sure, however, if the requisite density exists. Even less sure that the political will is there, or could be aggregated to make it happen.

  • Mark

    The state is recommending a transit study for the Route 28 corridor between Manassas and Centreville. http://www.vtrans2040.com/Documents/ConstructionDistricts/NorthernVirginia/Tier1_Recommendations_Profile_NOVA.pdf#page=40 Should be interesting to see the results. PWC has a light rail in there comprehensive plan. That would require a significant about of density.

  • If the density exists to add more lanes for cars, then it probably exists to add lanes for buses too.

  • Alon Levy

    In addition to what Marven said, why not upzone the area? Northern Virginia is rich and booming, and could fill zoned capacity quickly if it permitted more apartment buildings with less parking.

  • Alon Levy

    There’s a commuter rail line passing through the district without stopping. Why not electrify it and add an infill stop in Manassas Park?

  • stvr

    Why is she getting a solid B+ for advocating bad policy? Let’s call this what it is.

  • Kenny Easwaran

    I don’t see a specific “B+” rating anywhere in this post. It’s fair to say that Roem is not advancing all the auto-centric policies that average local politicians might. That’s worth noting, while also noting that the policies she’s endorsing still aren’t good.

  • Kenny Easwaran

    Another way to look at it is that Roem’s platform went viral because of the sweetness of her victory and perhaps some of “the SJW angle”. Whenever anyone’s platform goes viral, and it focuses on transportation issues, it’ll be worthwhile for Streetsblog to talk about it, regardless of why it went viral in the first place.

  • Sidney Rock Dove

    Media analysis protip: famous folks get written and read about.

  • Paula

    *Loudoun County (not Loundon)

  • calwatch

    She got national attention because she is transgender, but ran (appropriately) on local issues not gender. This article might have been more helpful prior to the election, though.

  • Newtonmarunner

    There’s an airport near Manassas to get you to DC, as my ex-government co-workers would joke. …

    I agree with you that electrification and infill station is about the best you can do. But even then, the map doesn’t look very promising for TOD.

    [Fwiw, I grew up in Fairfax County.]

  • Newtonmarunner

    That can work in Arlington and Alexandria near Metro stations and by Columbia Pike and Seven Corners.

    Fairfax County, though, is a tougher nut to crack. Maybe get rid of the 5K Vienna Metro Parking Lot. Same with the Dunn Loring, West Falls Church, East Falls Church, Van Dorn, and Franconia. Still, most will need cars for a few things given it’s Fairfax County.

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