- - Tuesday, November 26, 2019

To build or not to build? That is the question when it comes to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s multibillion-dollar plans to widen Interstate 270.

The answer most likely will be delivered by his successor. An environmental impact study for widening I-270 won’t be completed until a few months before the end of Mr. Hogan’s second term in early 2023, giving the Republican little time to secure contracting bids for the project. The next governor also will not be obligated to follow through on Mr. Hogan’s plan.

“It will wind up either with taxpayers footing a big bill that comes due when some future governor is in office, or with no new lanes being built. Which of these it is remains to be seen,” said Ben Ross, chairman of the Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition, a collection of transit unions, passenger groups and transportation advocates seeking alternatives to paving more roads.

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Still, Mr. Hogan’s $9 billion to $11 billion private-public partnership proposal to widen I-270 and I-495, including new toll lanes, has aroused an array of opposition, inspired hours of public hearings, and prompted a number of studies and critiques encouraging a go-slow approach that includes mass transit. Most of the opponents are residents and businesses whose property would be affected by the widening project.

“Various people among us started researching what happens when you widen a highway, whether it was good or bad. Our research led us to conclude that when you widen a highway, the traffic increases proportionally and the congestion quickly returns to its earlier equilibrium,” said Sally Stolz of the advocacy group Don’t Widen 270.

Even the state’s three-member Board of Public Works, on which Mr. Hogan serves, has decided to tap the brakes on part of the governor’s plan. Citing a lack of public support, the board voted this spring to delay construction on the Capital Beltway portion of the proposal and focus instead on the I-270 expansion, which is being managed in two stages.

“Maryland is poised to deliver transformational traffic relief,” said state Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn. “We remain laser-focused on delivering innovative solutions to address the soul-crushing traffic people are sick and tired of facing every day.”

Interstate 270 stretches 35 miles north to south from I-70 in the city of Frederick in Frederick County to I-495 near the city of Bethesda in Montgomery County. According to the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT), Frederick County’s population is expected grow 18% and Montgomery County’s 35% by 2040.

Last year, an average of 94,000 vehicles a day traveled on the northern part of I-270 between 1-70 and Clarksburg Road (MD 121). MDOT predicts 111,000 vehicles a day will travel that stretch of highway by 2040. The southern part of I-270 between Watkins Mill Road and I-370 near Gaithersburg carried 180,000 vehicles a day last year and is projected to have 210,000 by 2040, MDOT says.

MDOT’s State Highway Administration has opened public hearings on improving the “upper” portion of I-270, from I-70 to I-370. Though no options have been officially removed from consideration, the highway administration’s Managed Lanes Study eliminated transit-oriented solutions such as a dedicated bus lane network, heavy rail, light rail and bus rapid transit in favor of six options that include toll lanes.

“I went to a town hall in Bethesda/Chevy Chase of what they were planning to do. With really no input, it seemed like they were perfunctorily checking a box without comment. They were just orchestrating it towards a predetermined outcome,” said Brad German, co-chairman of Citizens Against Beltway Expansion.

Citizens Against Beltway Expansion is a loose coalition of local civic groups that formed in the 1990s but was largely dormant during the tenure of Mr. Hogan’s predecessor, Democrat Martin O’Malley. Since Mr. Hogan’s plan was announced in 2017, hundreds of activists in local chapters of the Sierra Club, the Audubon Naturalist Society, Corazon Latino, the Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition and Don’t Widen 270 have voiced opposition to the project.

Nationally, the Public Interest Research Group and the Frontier Group thumped the Hogan plan as one of their 2018 highway boondoggles. An annual list highlights what the nonprofit groups describe as quick-fix proposals to build new roads rather than repairing old roadways and employing different kinds of mass transit.

“If you live in Northern Virginia or suburban Maryland, [traffic congestion] is something that you experience every single day, and that very well may annoy you. To be a political leader and to take on that problem can be seen as a good thing. Politicians love ribbon-cutting,” said Tony Dutzik of the Frontier Group.

But even a few transit advocates say some expansion is needed for the upper portion of I-270, which narrows from 12 lanes to two and routinely causes bottlenecks during rush hours.

“We must continue to ensure that the I-270 corridor is a transportation funding priority for the state. Whatever the solution [or solutions], maintaining the status quo is not an option,” said Frederick County Council member Jessica Fitzwater.

She said her constituents would prefer that the state focus on “moving people instead of cars.”

Meanwhile, the Managed Lanes Study for the lower part of I-270 already has gone through public review. Concerns about eminent domain and encroachment are far more prevalent in the lower I-270 corridor and along the Beltway than in Frederick County, where reducing commuting time is the top priority.

The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission last week unanimously rejected the study for proposing toll lanes on I-495 and I-270. The commission comprises planning officials from Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, which have been critical of the Hogan plan for encroachment and eminent domain issues, as well as cost.

“Our respective goal is to make the project the best it can be by balancing the transportation needs of the region while minimizing the impacts to critical environmental resources. We are each pushing back at MDOT SHA to do a better job with their analyses and provide us each the data in order for us to do our due diligence,” said Bridget Schwiesow, a spokeswoman for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.

Critics of expanding the interstates universally call for more mass transit, but MDOT says transit options won’t eliminate the region’s traffic congestion.

MDOT spokeswoman Terry Owens noted while 8.5% of commuters use transit, 42% of Maryland’s six-year budget goes to transit and the percentage is rising each year. By 2022, the state’s annual investment in Metro will be larger than its investment in the State Highway Administration, he said.

“If they expanded the Metro line out to Frederick, you don’t think people in this region would be jumping for joy?” Ms. Stolz said.

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