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Gaithersbungle, part 3: What else can you get for $3.8 billion?

The Montgomery County Planning Board staff endorsed a $3.8 billion widening of I-270 all the way to Frederick County, a move which would fuel sprawl way up in the county's preserved farmland areas. What else could we do with $3.8 billion to improve the corridor even more?

The transit that already exists in the 270 corridor.

We can start with the transit that's already there. There's a rail line that stops in all the towns along the way: MARC. For less than $3.8 billion, we could realize a vision like this, of Metro-quality services on all MARC and VRE lines.

The main obstacle is that CSX owns the tracks, and uses them for freight. However, NCPC commssioned a study on the feasibility of moving CSX's freight traffic off the main line through DC. They found that for about $2 billion, we could construct a bypass through Bowie, Upper Marlboro, and then across the Potomac to Stafford County, largely using rail right-of-way that already exists. That would relieve VRE and the MARC lines from Baltimore, but not the MARC Brunswick line along 270. However, the study also evaluated a western bypass from Point of Rocks through eastern Loudoun, and there's also an existing set of alternate tracks that go even farther west, through Front Royal, into Manassas, and back out to Culpeper and Gordonsvile, Virginia. For $3.8 billion, we could probably build both bypasses, or route Brunswick freight traffic over the existing lines, and free up the MARC line for real transit-quality service.

Potential alternative corridors for freight rail through the region.
Image from the Freight Railroad Realignment Feasibility Study.

Or, we could build a new line, like the one Dave Murphy suggested to Frederick. Such a line ought to stop more frequently in the Rockville-Gaithersburg area, however, if the County really wants to foster more transit-oriented development there instead of just pushing northwestern sprawl.

And for far, far less money, we could improve the immediate area. ACT's Ben Ross pointed out today that the difference in cost between BRT and light rail on the Corridor Cities Transitway would be $200 billion million. And meanwhile, down around the White Flint area which is already dense and near transit, the Planning Board said it was too expensive to spend $70 million to make Rockville Pike more usable for pedestrians, bicyclists, and bus riders.

The best argument of all comes from the freeway-cheerleading Washington Post itself (which never mentions the Intercounty Connector without words like "desperately-needed," even in an obituary for someone who fought the plan. The last time Maryland widening I-270 was in the 1980s, for what now sounds like a paltry $200 million. Rather than reduce congestion, the widening simply fueled sprawl that filled the road right up, and all Maryland got for its $200 million was even more vehicle miles traveled, people living even farther from jobs, and less rural land at the edge of the county.

Planning staff are eager to make the very same mistake again. "Most planning agencies ... don't really account for induced demand," Princeton professor David Bernstein told the Post ten years ago. It seems these agencies still haven't learned a thing.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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How much do you want to bet that $3.8 billion will hit $4.5 billion before any of this sees the light of day? I forget, how are they paying for this? I thought Annapolis and Monkey County's budgets were way in the red?

by monkeyrotica on Jul 6, 2009 3:09 pm • linkreport

and all Maryland got for its $200 million was even more vehicle miles traveled, people living even farther from jobs, and less rural land at the edge of the county.

Well to be fair, they also got the tax revenues of the businesses and workers who located along 270. There was certainly some financial return on that money. A more nuanced statement would be to say that the county directed growth in an unsustainable direction that failed to give as much punch as better planned development could have.

They got growth, and that growth brought money. The question is whether it was the best type of growth and whether it can be continued without running out of land or completely locking up the roads. I doubt it. (and that's not even touching on the negative externalities of all those additional VMT).

by Reid on Jul 6, 2009 3:10 pm • linkreport

I agree with this but wonder one thing why should CSX do this.

What is the advantage of them moving instead of having Marc & VRE build there own right of way somewhere.

It seems like everybody is taking the Marc side of this without regard to the owners of the line CSX, there needs to be a damn good reason to why they should agree to anything like this and how would this benefit them.

by Kk on Jul 6, 2009 3:12 pm • linkreport

KK: CSX is a for-profit corporation. For enough money, they'll agree to ANYthing.

by tom veil on Jul 6, 2009 3:16 pm • linkreport

ACT's Ben Ross pointed out today that the difference in cost between BRT and light rail on the Corridor Cities Transitway would be $200 billion
$200 million?

Good post, David. I can't wait to read part 4.

by Cavan on Jul 6, 2009 3:22 pm • linkreport

@tom veil

I understand that, but how much money will it cost them to get CSX to say yes.

I doubt CSX would sell the parts they own they would probably end up renting them.

by KK on Jul 6, 2009 3:26 pm • linkreport

You go to CSX and say we will build you a new crossing and connect you back to your tracks on the other side of DC in exchange for your tracks through DC. You will still be allowed to service your customers within the DC area but VRE and MARC trains will have first priority at all times. It would be a win win for them because they wouldn't have to share the Long Bridge with everybody else and the trackage through DC needs lots of love anyways.

by NikolasM on Jul 6, 2009 4:05 pm • linkreport

This kind of deal with CSX is pretty common, so unless CSX has some serious advantage to bringing freight by the Capitol, I don't see a vociferous opposition. It's all about the closed-door discussions that happen first.

by цarьchitect on Jul 6, 2009 4:23 pm • linkreport

Actually, CSX is in the middle of a $700 million national capital area capacity expansion project. They will be applying for stimulus dollars in the $1.5 billion discretionary pot to help pay for it.

by BeyondDC on Jul 6, 2009 4:27 pm • linkreport

Besides, couldn't we leverage some money from the security industrial complex and claim that this will help us avoid having to ship trainloads of chlorine directly beneath the Capitol?

by Reid on Jul 6, 2009 4:29 pm • linkreport

Regarding building freight rail bypasses, it should be noted that Alignment #1 (from the map David posted) was dropped due to the considerably longer travel times such a route would ensue...which amongst other things would affect CSX's ability to compete with trucks on the I-95 corridor. It was also deemed the most expensive due to the length of track that would need to be reconstructed (which includes the B&Os original route west of Baltimore and NS's B-line west of Manassas).

Alignment #2 was dropped due to the need for almost all new construction along the corridor and the difficulty of engineering such new construction.

by Froggie on Jul 6, 2009 6:02 pm • linkreport

Clearly 3 or 4 make the most sense of these options.

by NikolasM on Jul 6, 2009 6:30 pm • linkreport

So for only 3.8 billion we could open up the existing lines into DC for Chicago METRA type service (daily ridership 335K)? Count me in.

For the cost of extending one single line, we effectively get 5(FIVE) new high-capacity express-service lines into DC and effective extensions of the:
Red Lines
Virginia Blue Line
MD Orange Line
MD Green Line

Sounds like this gets the biggest "bang for the buck" of any proposal out there. Less sexy but most effective.

by stevek_fairfax on Jul 6, 2009 9:24 pm • linkreport

So compared to METRA, if the new 5 line METRO-Express system could do 200K to 250K per day, that would obviously be pretty good.

by stevek_fairfax on Jul 6, 2009 9:36 pm • linkreport

With regard to my Imagine, DC post, that line was intended to be more of an inter-urban rail rather than a commuter rail, hence the few stops. I should have elaborated more that such a railway ought to rely on systems like the CCT and perhaps a trolley in Frederick.

by Dave Murphy on Jul 7, 2009 1:21 am • linkreport

I got a Great Idea; why don't they Stop ALL Highway Projects in Virginia, North/South Carolina, Georgia, and Texas and use the money to Fund High Speed Rail throughout the Northeast and Mid-West.

And once that Happens then we talk about the BS Suggestion of Robbing/Hustling Marylanders out of the right to drive on Improved(Widen) Highways and Future New Highways.

by mike on Jul 7, 2009 7:15 pm • linkreport

What he anti-Highway Maryland Haters have not admitted is that there is a MARC Rail Line that does serve Frederick.

by mike on Jul 7, 2009 7:19 pm • linkreport

They could extend the Amtrak catenary west along some of the existing commuter rail routes towards point of rocks as a new eletric branch line off of the main NEC main line. It most likely would cost under a billion dollars and they could add extra sections of high speed track to this section.

It would build up a larger need for 25Hz power and they could also extend the 25Hz system south towards Richmond Vrginia along allow it to tap into other eletric companies for it. They would even have money to buy all new passanger cars and locomtives for it.

by Ocean Railroader on Dec 6, 2010 8:01 pm • linkreport

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