SHA avoids the T word in 270 reply
Back in the summer, after an outcry over the high $4 billion price tag for widening I-270, the Montgomery County Council decided to hold off on any decisions until it could get answers to a few little pesky questions. They asked the Maryland State Highway Administration to respond by early September, but SHA took until the end of last week to respond. Despite the long time frame, their answers are a little thin on details.
As Michael Dresser pointed out, they don't explain how much money will have to come from tolls, or how high the tolls will be. They do make clear that federal transportation funds aren't sufficient to pay for the project. Also, the state has maxed out its current transportation debt ceiling with the ICC, requiring the state legislature to raise the debt limit if they want to borrow money for this project.
Despite refusing to talk about tolls, the model seems to assume that there will be high tolls. They say that they don't expect a lot of "induced demand" from the road. That's only possible if the tolls are high enough as to discourage new settlement at the edge of the region. In other words, the tolls would have to be so high that it's not economically worthwhile for people to commute from new subdivisions in Frederick County.
What about ACT's transit alternative? They say they looked a transit alternative, but then rejected it. There isn't any more information about what that alternative was, or why they dropped it. The one reason they give for dropping the all-transit alternative is that it won't make travel faster for truckers or other drivers on 270 between DC and the Midwest. But will building a new road make travel faster for them? If the tolls are really high, and they want to pay the tolls, then maybe. But as we're finding out with the ICC, drivers don't actually want to pay the tolls.
Here's the bottom line. Either the road is too expensive for most people to use, or it will drive sprawl. If it drives sprawl, then it doesn't accomplish the improved mobility . And if the tolls are really high, then it doesn't benefit many people. Either way, the tolls won't pay for the road, so Maryland taxpayers from around the state end up footing the bill for a road that's either just as congested as the old road, or too expensive for most people to use.
Q: How will you pay for this project?
A: We don't know. The federal money Maryland will get in the future isn't enough to pay for this project. We'll need other sources, but don't know what or how much.
Q: How much of the money will be "discretionary" funds that the state could use for other purposes instead, if it chose?
A: We don't know yet.
Q: Can federal highway money be "flexed" to transit projects instead? What about transit on a highway?
A: Except for a few small exceptions, yes. Some categories require approval from USDOT, some don't.
Q: We think the currently proposed transportation bill in Congress allows states to keep flexing funds to transit. Is that right?
A: We don't want to answer any questions about bills that aren't law yet.
Q: Can the state use federal "highway trust fund" money for transit instead of highways if it wants?
A: Not as the programs operate now. FHWA "highway trust fund" money can't go to transit; you have to use FTA money for that. Congress has to allow that money to go to transit if it wants to let states choose between the two.
Q: How much will the state pay in interest on the bonds it will have to sell for this project?
A: We don't know how much money would be in bonds, so we can't say. However, the state has already hit its debt ceiling with the bonds it sold for the ICC, and can't sell more under current state law.
Q: What do you think about ACT's transit alternative?
A: We don't have time to analyze it, but it doesn't benefit the truckers driving on I-270 which is one of the groups that the freeway project will aid.
Q: How long will it take to study this?
A: We already looked at an all-transit alternative, but took it out because it didn't really decrease VMT on I-270. If we looked at this alternative, we'd have to start the EIS over.
Q: How long will it take to study the effect of the Gaithersburg West and Germantown plans?
A: Not very long. We just plug them into the model and hit go. We already looked at this in a preliminary way and it will increase traffic on I-270 somewhat.
Q: Do you want to add lanes on I-270 south of Shady Grove?
A: We're working on that study now.
Q: What is the cost of bus service on I-270 and how much service would we get? How does that compare to the MARC improvement?
A: Buses will run every 15 minutes and carry about 2,900-3,400 people per day for a cost of $6-9 million. Improving MARC would cost $531 million and quadruple capacity to 26,000 people per day, but our model estimates about 15,500 riders. MARC reaches farther than this project, all the way to West Virginia.
Q: Your EIS says that there will be less pollution with the new lanes than without. Did that account for induced demand?
A: Our model doesn't figure there will be very much induced demand.
Q: Can you add an option for two reversible lanes, as some have suggested?
A: Sure, but we have to pick a preferred alternative from among the existing options first, and can then look at this.
Q: It looks like, since most of the traffic is in the peak direction, two reversible lanes are just as good as four new lanes with two in each direction. Is that right?
A: Yeah, it looks like you're right, but we have to rerun the numbers using new forecasts.
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