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Will Maryland spend its new transportation funds wisely?

On Monday, Governor Martin O'Malley will announce which Montgomery County transportation projects he will support with funds from the new transportation bill passed earlier this year. While there may be good news about transit, advocates are concerned about the selection process and new highway projects that may receive funding.

The ICC. Photo by Doug Kerr on Flickr.

After years of a dwindling transportation trust fund, Maryland is ready to get started on a large backlog of important transportation projects. While the new Transportation Infrastructure Investment Act will raise $4.4 billion over the next 6 years, it's not enough to finance all the competing priorities. It is unclear how state leaders will decide how to allocate the money.

Advocates from 10 organizations working in Montgomery and Prince George's counties who supported the bill released a letter today applauding funding pledged so far for transit, bicycling, and pedestrian infrastructure. But they also raised concerns over new highway capacity projects and a project selection process done behind closed doors.

Unlike Northern Virginia, there is no clear public process for project selection for transportation funding in Maryland. In the fall, MDOT will release their draft project list and hold a series of open houses, but only after the O'Malley administration has spent the spring and summer announcing the projects it will fund.

So how do transportation funding decisions really happen in Maryland? One important influence is "priority letters," from each county telling the state which projects they want funding for. But the letters themselves are often not created with much public input, and while the Montgomery and Prince George's letters embrace some transit, bike, and pedestrian projects, both focus heavily on roads.

An important influence in Maryland's transportation funding decisions should be the stated goals of the Consolidated Transportation Program (CTP). It includes several important goals that ought to be used as selection criteria for funding, including doubling transit ridership by 2020, encouraging transit-oriented development and smart growth, prioritizing system preservation, and preservation of the natural environment and rural resource lands. Just last week, O'Malley made a major announcement regarding his plan to tackle climate change, which includes investment in public transit and transit-oriented development as a core strategy.

Despite a stated commitment to smart growth, climate protection, and system preservation, O'Malley's list of projects for Prince George's includes two major new road capacity projects that direct hundreds of millions of dollars far from Metro stations or inside-the-Beltway communities. $150 million would go towards a new interchange at MD 4 (Pennsylvania Avenue) and the Suitland Parkway, which would fuel the 6,000-acre Westphalia greenfield scheme. Such an investment promises to undermine local and state goals of encouraging transit-oriented development at the county's 15 underutilized Metro stations.

O'Malley will announce Monday which projects he will fund in Montgomery, but if the county's priority letter is any indication, his list will include road projects that may work against smart growth goals. Four of these projects are road widenings and interchanges along the Route 28/198 corridor. These projects alone would cost $500 million dollars, while drawing commuters and toll revenue away from the already underutilized Intercounty Connector, which runs parallel to the road.

Meanwhile, previous announcements indicate that Maryland may use a public-private partnership, effectively borrowing against future revenues, to help pay for the Purple Line. Governor O'Malley has already pledged $280 million for design and right-of-way acquisition, but in order to open by 2020 as scheduled, the light-rail line needs $1.1 billion of local funding.

A partnership with a private company would enable the state to pay for the project over a longer time horizon. But because the Purple Line is the top priority for both Montgomery and Prince George's counties, transit advocates are asking that state funds not go to lower-priority projects until it is certain that alternative financing is really a good deal for taxpayers and riders.

Since there will never be unlimited funds for transportation, the state's investments for suburban Maryland should go towards projects that are consistent with the state's long-stated smart growth and climate protection goals. If Maryland wants to address the area's traffic challenges and air and water pollution, the state must make building the Purple Line, funding the MARC Growth and Investment Plan, and WMATA's Momentum plan its top priorities.

Kelly Blynn is a former DC resident and an advocate for sustainable transportation and equitable development. She is now a graduate student in the Masters in City Planning program at MIT and a co-founding member of the pedestrian advocacy group All Walks DC. 


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Well said.

by Thayer-D on Aug 2, 2013 11:12 am • linkreport

Yes. PG county politicians like to talk TOD and inside the beltway revitalization, but when the rubber meets the ground, they want it paved in asphalt along an 8 lane stroad, disconnected from any grids and in new greenfield development.

by thump on Aug 2, 2013 11:30 am • linkreport

As much as we do need the Purple Line, Baltimore needs its Red Line more.

The Penn Line improvements are welcome, but until the B&P tunnel can get rebuild I dont really see much more that is urgent for MARC.

by Richard B on Aug 2, 2013 11:34 am • linkreport

I really hope the state prioritizes all of these projects over any road improvements

by Richard B on Aug 2, 2013 11:36 am • linkreport

Maryland needs to realize that highway-zation of arterial roads can be detriment to economic growth. Engineers always want to build more lanes, but what we really need is to implement SHA's "Main Streets" projects in a big way. Remaking our arterial roads into complete and green streets would spur far more economic growth in Maryland's suburbs than new interchanges or highways in my opinion. SHA needs to walk the walk -- literally in some cases.

by Greenbelt on Aug 2, 2013 11:46 am • linkreport

$150 million would go towards a new interchange at MD 4 (Pennsylvania Avenue) and the Suitland Parkway, which would fuel the 6,000-acre Westphalia greenfield scheme.

Westphalia or not, that interchange already needs to be built. Suitland Parkway becomes South Capitol Street, and is a major commuter route for people who live in southern Prince Georges, Anne Arundel and Calvert Counties to get into the City. Most all of the road projects that have been announced so far are either in response to already congested areas or will serve dense suburban new communities that fall within the Priority Funding areas (Watkins Mill interchange for example).

The State is likely to commit close to half of the new money if not more to transit because there are some very big ticket items out there that people want funded. Lets also not forget this is just over the next 6 years. These increased revenue sources will continue to deliver money beyond 6 years, that figure is only used because it's how far out the States CIP looks forward. So even if the CCT or one or both light rail lines is still only part funded at the end of 6 years, it may get the rest of the needed money in the next couple of years after that. Normal for a major project.

I'm very pro-transit, walking and biking. I live in DT Silver Spring, walk to work, and take the Metro rail and bus for 50%+ of my errands and recreation, but we are one State, sharing one pot of funding, and like it or not, people and businesses do live and operate in more suburban places, many are designated as priority funding areas, and are deserving of money too. At least so far the MD money is going to transit and interchanged in already developed or about to develop areas. VA is busy building mega highways to nowhere, expanding existing highways beyond the existing reach of its sprawl, and wants to build more highways to encourage sprawl. I have not see anything so far from MD that suggests it would encourage much new growth in an area it's not desired (Westphlia for what its worth is less than 2 miles from the Beltway and 1 mile from Andrews Airforce base, agreed it's not at a Metro station, but it's not creating a new Villages of Urbana or Landsdown like Frederick County has been known to do, miles from anything resembling infrastructure or existing development.)

by Gull on Aug 2, 2013 12:00 pm • linkreport

The deference to county priority funding letters is annoying, and bad policy. The state should really have its own vision for transportation in DC's MD suburbs, but it doesn't develop this at TPB, in the Secretary's office, at MTA, as part of WMATA oversight, or as part of the consolidated transportation plan. They just do project planning, like the Purple Line or the ICC, without any overarching context for the investment.

Interestingly, O'Malley's own transportation transition team recommended the development of a planning capacity for MD's DC suburbs six years ago, but no progress on the idea since then.

by jnb on Aug 2, 2013 12:14 pm • linkreport

Westphalia or not, that interchange already needs to be built. Suitland Parkway becomes South Capitol Street, and is a major commuter route for people who live in southern Prince Georges, Anne Arundel and Calvert Counties to get into the City.

I have to respectfully disagree with you on that, Gull. The Suitland Parkway (MD-337) / Pennsylvania Ave (MD-4) interchange doesn't "need" to be built. The fact that MD-337 and MD-4 are exurban commuter routes from southern MD into DC doesn't mean that capacity on those routes needs to be expanded. They are, after all, already 4-lane limited-access highways.

True, MD-337 does turn into South Capitol Street. But you don't see the District government throwing hundreds of millions of dollars into the widening of South Capitol Street to accommodate more automobile commuters - and for good reason. Adding highway capacity simply induces more people to drive at peak times, which is the exact opposite of what needs to happen.

If exurban commuters find their single-occupancy vehicle commutes along MD-337 and MD-4 to be too lengthy, they do have other choices. They could find their way to a Metro station or a commuter bus, for example. Or, they could move closer in. However, government should not subsidize or encourage inefficient and environmentally harmful patterns of sprawl development and SOV commutes by increasing road capacity.

Neither should government encourage Westphalia. Yes, it's close to the Beltway and to Andrews, but it's a big green patch of farm land. There are plenty of other places inside the Beltway, and around Metro stations, that are available to accommodate the development that is proposed at Westphalia. In fact, Westphalia is within 5 miles of 6 Metro stations, including Largo and Branch Avenue. All of these stations have the capacity to support large, dense urban development. Why would we create a whole new city away from Metro and put it on a farm?

by Bradley Heard on Aug 2, 2013 12:44 pm • linkreport

"Why would we create a whole new city away from Metro and put it on a farm?" That's a great question.

Smare growth dosen't mean subsidizing more sprawl. If a developer gets a good deal on a farm dosen't mean tax payer money should pay for connecting it to public infrastructure, unless there's something more at stake than the developer's profit. One of technologies dark sides is that we do things simply becasue we can rather than becasue they are desirable or make sense. If O'Malley wants to wave the smart growth banner and benefit from concerned citizens votes, he should be held accountable to actions which contradict his rhetoric.

"we are one State, sharing one pot of funding, and like it or not, people and businesses do live and operate in more suburban places, many are designated as priority funding areas, and are deserving of money too." I agree with this in principle, but it should be noted that not only has the equation beeen slanted for the last 60 years, but it's in everyone's interest to use our recources more efficiently.

by Thayer-D on Aug 2, 2013 12:53 pm • linkreport

any potential freight projects on the docket?

by Jack Jackson on Aug 2, 2013 1:18 pm • linkreport

Heaven forbid any money be spent on roads.

by Chris S. on Aug 2, 2013 1:55 pm • linkreport

"Despite a stated commitment to smart growth, climate protection, and system preservation, O'Malley's list of projects for Prince George's includes two major new road capacity projects that direct hundreds of millions of dollars far from Metro stations or inside-the-Beltway communities. $150 million would go towards a new interchange at MD 4 (Pennsylvania Avenue) and the Suitland Parkway, which would fuel the 6,000-acre Westphalia greenfield scheme. Such an investment promises to undermine local and state goals of encouraging transit-oriented development at the county's 15 underutilized Metro stations."

Oh, come you can you write that and not give the entire list?! It mistakenly gives the reader the impression that the Metro and other transit items are left out. For anyone wanting a fair listing of what PG County had as requests, take a look at this list. Notice anything about it? Lots of Metro station improvements (for those "under utilized" Metro stations), pedestrian and biking least be fair.

$100 million to construct an interchange on MD 210 (Indian Head Highway) at Kerby Hill-Livingston Road;

$50 million to improve access to the Branch Avenue Metro Station by constructing a new pedestrian bridge over MD 5 and a new metro access road (Woods Way) with sidewalks from MD 5 to the Branch Avenue Metro Station and by upgrading existing roadways to include additional turn lanes and sidewalks;

$7 million to design a full interchange, to upgrade the existing partial interchange, on I-95/I-495 at the Greenbelt Metro Station;

$150 million to construct a new interchange on MD 4 at Suitland Parkway;

$20 million to purchase right-of-way for a bicycle, pedestrian and safety improvements along US 1 from College Avenue to MD 193 in College Park;

$280 million to complete right-of-way acquisition and final design for the Maryland National Capital Purple Line;

$26 million to construct pedestrian/bicycle safety improvements and enhance community revitalization efforts along State roadways in Prince George’s County, including
–$9 million to construct improvements along MD 5 (Branch Avenue) and MD 637 (Naylor Road) near the Naylor Road Metro Station (sidewalks, medians, resurfacing, pedestrian lighting and signal upgrades)

–$6 million to construct improvements along MD 201 (Kenilworth) from Kenilworth Tower to MD 410 (sidewalks, bicycle lane, pedestrian improvements); and

–$11 million to construct improvements along MD 500 (Queens Chapel Road) from MD 208 to MD 410 (sidewalks, crosswalks and traffic “calming” upgrades to slow down traffic).

by ArchStanton on Aug 2, 2013 2:24 pm • linkreport


I could counter argue you, and say why should be have to pay to expend transit just because people want to use it. They can just move somewhere where the state is increasing highway capacity instead. You and I both know this sounds ridiculous because we see the future and understand that the 2nd half of the 20th century's development patterns did a lot to damage our landscape. However, it's a far too common belief held by many people, and I don't think forcing a one option fits all approach is the way to do it. If we're to make the region (state) better, we have to find compromise, not suggest ideas that further the wedge between people. This includes better education to the people who want it on alternative transportation lifestyles. For what its worth, I know there is a traffic problem at 4 and suitland parkway because I have family that sit in that back up every day, getting to work at the Census Bureau. Not a place where transit makes much sense unless coming from the northern part of our region. Sure someone could drive to the park and ride, take that bus to the train, then the train 1 stop to Suitland and walk, but the more you have to mode switch in a commute, the more you lose people willing to participate.

@Bradley and @Thayer
Yes, Westphalia is a farm and forest right now, and yes, there are lots of development opportunities around Metro stations in other parts of Prince Georges right now. Notice which is being built and which are not. Even if the state was not going to build an interchange, the Westphalia town center would still be coming. I'm not sure Prince Georges County is yet in a position to be picking and choosing which development it approved and not. If Westphalia actually does succeed in attracting some above average retail, housing and some employment, it will help increase the perception of the County, making it easier for economic developers to sell the County's other assets. Just saying build at Metro stations and nowhere else in my opinion is putting your head in the sand about where people and businesses want to be and where the local economy would support growth. It also gets back to the point of having to find common ground between people with different views. No we're not developing on top of a Metro station, but we are creating a mixed use community, with a town center, that will help reduce vehicle trips and vehicle miles traveled over conventional suburban development. With the location of Suitland Parkway and the Suitland Metro, there is ease in establishing a regularly running shuttle bus/bus lines that could serve this project and get you to the Metro rail quickly.

It seems development patterns in areas that do have much more activity around Metro did not really tick up until the conventional suburban development ability became constrained, driving up the price of real-estate and increasing profitability of taking on a high density TOD. It's also happening in areas where there are medium and upper income suburban areas near by, including employment and retail. Most of the metro stations in Prince Georges County are not attractive yet to residents with mobility, businesses or developers due to negative perception of the area. It's easy to sit back and say hey, Prince Georges should learn from everyone elses mistakes and develop at the Metro stations first, but how exactly is that fair to them?

I guess as a practicing planner, it's become second nature to play the devil's advocate about everything because I quickly realized not everyone shares my pro-urban ideas nor does everyone believe urbanization is in our best interests.

by Gull on Aug 2, 2013 2:54 pm • linkreport

Gull --

Finding compromise among competing good ideas is one thing, but acting (and spending) against the public interest is quite another. As you acknowledge, the suburban sprawl development patterns of the latter half of the 20th century did a lot of damage. You're right that we need to do a better job of educating the public about what economic and environmental damage that kind of development has wrought. What we don't need to do is continue to foster sprawl and SOV usage. That's what these kinds of road expansion projects do. (Remember -- it's not that we didn't build highways to serve these locations. Rather, it's that the increasing sprawl development pattern has now made those highways quite crowded.)

A better solution to the traffic jam problem in south county could be to establish more frequent and more direct express bus service (e.g., between Upper Marlboro and Suitland via MD-4, or between Upper Marlboro and Largo via MD-202) and to convert one of the existing lanes into an HOV lane during peak hours. This would encourage carpooling and public transit use that would result in a reduction in congestion on the highway. Using the MD-4/MD-337 interchange money for that purpose would buy a bunch of buses, with very short headways.

On Westphalia, I'm not so sure that the Town Center would come to fruition without public financing of the necessary roadway expansion. It's just too expensive to convert a farm into a megalopolis without public money. The notion that Prince George's County—with its population of nearly 900,000, its high incomes, and its high levels of education—is not in a position to pick and choose where development should and shouldn't go is preposterous. That kind of thinking is largely what is responsible for the county's current plight. Of course the county is in a position to do that! It just hasn't been doing it - and that's the problem.

It's always going to be cheaper, easier, and more attractive to developers to build a new city on a greenfield, rather than to redevelop around Metro stations in older, more challenged communities. That doesn't mean that's what's best for the county. In fact, we know that's not in the county's long-term interest. No amount of new greenfield development outside of the Beltway is going to improve the condition or the perception of the Metro-accessible portion of the county inside the Beltway. Lord knows, if that were the case, then we'd be in Seventh Heaven already!

What the county needs is to establish and follow land use policies and spending policies that actually facilitate and incentivize TOD, and that prevent or discourage sprawl. You can't allow (and underwrite) Westphalia and then expect development to magically come to a nearby Metro station. That will never happen.

by Bradley Heard on Aug 2, 2013 4:18 pm • linkreport

Earlier this month, the Governor announced that $250 million of the $650 million allocated to Prince Georges County is earmarked for acquiring land for the Purple Line right-of-way.

That's 38% for transit, leaving 62% for roads in a county where 80% of commuters drive, even if they take Metro.

So why the hand-wringing over whether Maryland will "have the right priorities"?

by ceefer66 on Aug 2, 2013 6:52 pm • linkreport

Actually, it's $280 million for Purple Line land acquisition.

Again, why the whining about not enough being spent on transit?

by ceefer66 on Aug 2, 2013 6:56 pm • linkreport

I agree with ArchStanton and ceefer66 in that you should credit O'Malley for the a ton of money he is putting into transit. How many states (even here in the dense Northeast megalopolis) allocate such a large share of transportation funding towards transit? Virginia is basically doing the exact opposite by proposing all new highways in PWC/Loudoun and Hampton Roads.

I've recently started riding MARC again and the difference is nearly night and day compared to when I originally started riding 7 years ago--on time-trains, longer trains w/more seats, ticket machines, GPS tracking, reliable locomotives, useful, LED boards at every station...and this is just the Brunswick Line (the Penn Line received the lion's share of improvements). Maryland as 3 light rail lines and a BRT line in the works, not to mention a commuter rail system that they're in the process of improving.

"Unlike Northern Virginia, there is no clear public process for project selection for transportation funding in Maryland"

The legality of the "process" used in Northern Virginia is questionable legal since the NVTA doesn't have the authority to allocate tax dollars.

by King Terrapin on Aug 2, 2013 7:38 pm • linkreport

It's great to hear O'Malley is putting money behind transit to such an extent. But it's not planning to simply look at the driver to transit proportions and allocate moneys accordingly. A plan would be to imagine a better outcome, and Plan for it. Imagine the proportions in the 1950's? They thought we'd all be magically floating in and out of home and work in our convenient cars, avoiding eachother like the plague. This bringing back the public space and encouraging walking is good for society, or as the constitution puts it, public welfare.

by Thayer-D on Aug 2, 2013 8:30 pm • linkreport

And next year after the land is acquired that cost will go to 0!

by drumz on Aug 2, 2013 8:50 pm • linkreport

Mass transit is very important to enhance in our region, but mass transit planning should be connected to the protection of neighborhoods nearby transit stops so that displacement caused by the inevitable gentrification is minimized. Maryland's DOT seems not to take that into consideration and perhaps some jurisdictions don't either. Property taxes are more important that residents' quality of life. Alas.

by bhanna on Aug 3, 2013 2:48 pm • linkreport

Mass transit is about quality of life. The reason gentrification is inevitable is due to demand. It seems that more transit should be built to minimize gentrification's negative effects. But delaying any longer will only make existing transit neighborhoods that much more precious.

by Thayer-D on Aug 3, 2013 3:24 pm • linkreport

I'm not aware of any major transportation project that had the aim of keeping everything as-is. I'm not sure that's reasonable either, MoCo is growing regardless. Therefore it's te county's responsibility to put that growth in a place that can best accommodate it. With the purple line that's going to mean in communities like Chevy Chase that are already dense and close to other dense communities.

by drumz on Aug 3, 2013 7:38 pm • linkreport

Slightly off topic, but I think that one highway project that should be funded with the latest gas tax increase would be an I-95 bypass. This project would use the Md-301 right of way, bringing it up to interstate standards, and connecting to a new Harry Nice bridge south of DC.

Google maps shows that it is roughly the same distance of I-95 from Richmond to Baltimore. There would be two benefits from this. One, traffic that is travelling on I-95 without any business in the DC region could bypass the area, cutting down on the number of cars on the beltway. Second, this road would be tolled, so it could bring in some significant revenue as many motorists would pay to bypass I-95/I-495

by caps fan on Aug 5, 2013 2:34 pm • linkreport

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