Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Roads

Roads


Adventure! Romance! Highway rest stops?

Am I crazy to actually like big highway rest stops?

Maryland's newest one is scheduled to open along I-95 next week, following a complete reconstruction. And somehow, despite the fact that it's merely a collection of fast food, dirty restrooms, and convenience marts, I think there will be just a touch of romance to the place.


The newly rebuilt Maryland House rest stop. Photo by MDTA.

Something about all waystations appeals to me. I know they're mundane and often uncomfortable places, but all of them, from airports to train depots to I-95 travel plazas, somehow tickle my sense of fantasy.

I think it's because waystations are the gathering places of travel, where humanity comes together and rests before setting off on adventure. Rest stops may not be exotic themselves, but they're where exotic stories begin. Somehow, with hundreds of traveling partners bustling around me, being in a waystation makes travel feel like a quest.

Or maybe I've just got an overactive imagination. Does anyone else feel this way?

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Roads


Will Montgomery fund new transit, or build more roads?

Maryland's gas tax increase means it now has the most transportation funding in a generation. Will Montgomery County spend its share on transit to support its urban centers, or keep building highways?


Downtown Silver Spring. Photo by dan reed! on Flickr.

Coupled with existing revenues, the new gas tax has made $15 billion available for transportation, a 52% increase from last year and the most transportation funding in a generation. This month, the County Council will send the state a list of their transportation priorities in order to receive some of that money. As in past years, there are a number of road projects on the list.

But the Planning Board, noting the high cost of new highways and efforts to direct future growth to urban centers, urged the council to choose transit instead. Transit isn't "the answer to every transportation problem," they write, but "where roadway widenings to solve perennial traffic congestion would significantly affect existing communities, natural resources and parkland, a more efficient solution is needed."

Funding would give county's transit plans teeth

Not all of the projects on the list are likely to receive funding. But if they were, the county's transit network could expand dramatically.

Some projects already have the support of county and state officials, including the Purple Line and Corridor Cities Transitway. Also included are funds for more 8-car trains on the Red Line, which will allow Metro to stop turning trains around at Silver Spring instead of running them to the end of the line at Glenmont.

There's also funding to build three of the county's proposed BRT lines along Georgia Avenue, Route 29, and Veirs Mill Road, as well as studying future lines on Rockville Pike and New Hampshire Avenue. A proposed HOV lane on I-270 could eventually support transit between White Flint and Tysons Corner. Planners also recommend funding new sidewalks and bike paths along Georgia Avenue between Forest Glen Road and 16th Street, which the State Highway Administration is currently studying, and a pedestrian underpass at the Forest Glen Metro station.

These projects would serve the county's existing urban centers, like Silver Spring and Bethesda, by giving people alternatives to driving. And they would support the development of future ones like White Oak, where County Executive Ike Leggett envisions a research and technology hub.

Planners say transit would better serve growth areas

But many of the road projects in the priorities list could undermine those efforts, whether by directing funding away from transit or by encouraging more people to drive there.

The priorities list includes three interchanges along Route 29 in East County, at Stewart Lane, Tech Road, and Greencastle Road, which have been in planning for decades and would cost $344 million. (Maryland has already set aside $7 million to design a fourth interchange at Fairland Road, estimated to cost $128 million to build.) Under the county's traffic tests, they have to be built before development in White Oak can happen.

County planners estimate that the three interchanges would cost the same to build as an 11-mile BRT line along the same corridor between downtown Silver Spring and Burtonsville. They say transit would not only better support the creation of a town center in White Oak, but give commuters from points north an alternative to driving, ultimately reducing local congestion.

"We believe that prioritizing the [Route 29] transit corridor improvements is the better choice," their report says.

Other road projects on the list include funds to build Montrose Parkway, a highway that would divide White Flint and Twinbrook. And there's a proposal to widen Norbeck Road between Georgia Avenue and Layhill Road and build an interchange at Georgia, even though the road runs parallel to the underused Intercounty Connector a half-mile away.

Maryland's new transportation funds present a rare opportunity to the state and Montgomery County, its economic engine. Some road improvements may be necessary and beneficial, especially in the county's suburban areas. But the county's urban centers are where most of its future growth will happen, and they need transit to thrive. We have to make the right choice now, because we may not get it again for a long time.

Roads


Montgomery passes on transit alternative to M-83 highway

Of all six alternatives for M-83, a proposed highway between Clarksburg and Gaithersburg in Montgomery County, Alternative 9 is the most expensive, environmentally harmful, and the one highway planners most want to build. Despite mounting opposition, the Planning Board rushed to vote in favor of it last Thursday.


M-83 opponents gather before the hearing. Photo by the author.

The decision went against recommendations from planning staff that the board ask the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) to consider transit as well. Staff detailed Alternative 9's potential environmental impacts, including damage to parkland and the county's Agricultural Reserve.

MCDOT deputy director Edgar Gonzalez cautioned against any delay in choosing an alignment, but admitted that MCDOT has not yet received their permits indicating that Alternative 9 will even pass federal environmental review. Comments from the Environmental Protection Agency indicate that Alternative 9's path through wetlands and stream valleys mean it may not pass Clean Water Act standards.

EPA, one of six federal agencies that will review M-83, also known as Midcounty Highway Extended, released their comments about it the following day, identifying "several areas of concern." To comply with the Clean Water Act, MCDOT would have to evaluate all "practicable alternatives" before choosing the Least Environmentally Damaging Preferred Alternative, which EPA officials feel hasn't occurred.

"While we recognize the importance of the County's Master Plan (Alternative 9) to this project and to the County," reads their response, "for the purposes of the Clean Water Act Section 404 the Corps must evaluate a suite of practicable alternatives based on the overall project purpose and associated impacts regardless of the vision presented in the Master Plan."

Public opposition to M-83 is high. The vast majority of speakers at Thursday night's hearing came from people opposing the new highway and advocating for a transit alternative. Over the summer, the Board received 237 comments from the public, 228 of which were opposed to the highway.

That's not to say there is no support for the highway. Some supporters live along Alignment 4, which would be equally destructive, and they would rather see the road go somewhere else. Others live in transit-poor Clarksburg and are convinced a new road would solve their commuting frustration.


Alternative routes being studied for Midcounty Highway. Image from MCDOT.

Following four hours of staff and public discussion, the Planning Board had 20 minutes left. Chair Françoise Carrier asked the other board members if they wanted to start deliberations that night. Amy Presley, board member from Clarksburg, insisted they start. It quickly became clear that she had two other votes on her side to approve Alternative 9.

Over objections from the chair and Casey Anderson, she insisted on making a motion to ignore planning staff and the public and vote in Alternative 9 as the Board's preferred alignment.

Everyone appeared stunned by the outcome and speed of the decision. Typically, the Planning Board takes much longer to decide, especially when there's a major disagreement or they are going squarely against staff recommendations and the public. It's equally surprising that they acted without seeing comments from the federal environmental review of the highway, which Gonzalez said he had not brought with him.

M-83 has been in Montgomery County's master plan for 50 years, and MCDOT has been conducting its most recent study for 10 years. Why the rush now?

The primary reason seems to be the drive to "fix" development problems in Clarksburg and make it up to some residents who feel like many undelivered promises have been made. This marks the second time in two months that the Planning Board has disregarded the recommendations of its staff about Clarksburg, the first time being recommendations to protect Ten Mile Creek from new development.

But for an estimated cost of $350 million, M-83 is likely to be an expensive band-aid for Clarksburg's congestion woes. MCDOT itself predicts that there will be more congestion if M-83 is built than if it were to make minor improvements to Route 355.

Clarksburg was built to be a transit-oriented community, but its promised frequent transit service never materialized. For $350 million, the county could make needed improvements to 355 and get their Bus Rapid Tansit system moving on that corridor, which the County Council is likely to approve today. This would provide a much longer-lasting way out of congestion for Clarksburg residents.

Gonzalez and MCDOT created a sense of urgency that the board must vote to keep M-83 "on track" with their hopeful schedule, and not slow down to study transit or other less destructive alternatives. We'll find out this spring if the County Executive and County Council will do the same when they decide whether to include the road in their next budget.

If you live in Montgomery County and would like to urge your elected officials to reconsider this highway, you can send them an email here.

Roads


Will Montgomery County study a transit alternative to M-83?

M-83, also known as Midcounty Highway Extended, is an environmental calamity that will cost hundreds of millions. Yet Montgomery County continues to pursue its construction. Will county leaders consider a transit alternative to a new highway?


Seneca Creek Greenway Trail. Photo by Vicki’s Pics on Flickr.

When Montgomery County planners put M-83 on the master plan of highways in the early 1960s, the county's population was 340,000. DC's streetcars had recently gone away. And highways were the future of transportation. Today, the county population is one million, DC is about to bring back the streetcar, and highway removal is common. But M-83, the county's zombie highway, is still around.

This Thursday, the Planning Board will review alternatives for the proposed highway between Gaithersburg and Clarksburg. But planning staff recommends that they ask the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) to study a transit alternative as well, and remove the alternative with the most property takings.

Highway laid out according to 1960s standards

Midcounty Highway was supposed to be an 8.7-mile, limited access, four to six lane highway east of Route 355, connecting the planned corridor cities of Gaithersburg, Germantown, and Clarksburg. The county has built the southern end, a 3-mile divided highway between Shady Grove Road and Montgomery Village Avenue in Gaithersburg. And developers recently built the northern end, called Snowden Farm Parkway, in Clarksburg.

The Planning Board last reviewed the remaining middle part of M-83 in 1992, but for over a decade, not much happened due to a lack of money. In 2003, MCDOT began to study building the rest of M-83 along the master plan route. But that route dates from before the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA), when planners thought it was a good idea to put highways in stream valleys.

So the Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) got involved. And MCDOT had to follow NEPA's requirement to identify alternatives and evaluate the environmental effects.

In May 2013, MCDOT issued its draft report on the environmental effects. The Army Corps of Engineers and MDE then held a public hearing in August about MCDOT's application for a permit to build M-83. They have yet to publish their findings.

Planning staff recommend studying a transit alternative

But this week, the Planning Board will nonetheless review the master plan route and its alternatives. In a report issued last week, planning staff say that MCDOT should evaluate a transit alternative, including the planned bus rapid transit (BRT) route along 355, and that MCDOT's transportation systems management/transportation demand management (TSM/TDM) alternative should also include BRT along 355.

Their analysis suggests that the area can meet its transportation needs through 2040 without M-83. They also note that the 355 BRT corridor would have the second-highest daily ridership of the 10 proposed transit corridors in the Countywide Transit Corridors Functional Master Plan.

MCDOT says they didn't look at a transit alternative because Montgomery County has not adopted any plans for BRT. They also did not consider transit in their TSM/TDM alternative, even though TSM/TDM usually includes transit.

The staff report's recommendation will please M-83's opponents, including Transit Alternatives to Mid-County Highway Extended (TAME) and the Action Committee for Transit, who have been calling for years for MCDOT to study a transit alternative.

County planners also recommend asking MCDOT to eliminate the alternative route through Goshen, which would involve widening existing two- and four-lane roads. The Planning Board already recommended eliminating the route in 1992. Some community groups have strongly opposed this alternative in favor of the master plan route so that M-83 wouldn't go through their neighborhoods. If the threat from this alternative route goes away, some of the support for M-83 along the master plan route will probably go away as well.

MCDOT's report underestimates environmental and property impacts

In addition, the staff report points out problems with MCDOT's evaluation of environmental effects. For example, MCDOT reports that if M-83 isn't built, 16 intersections will exceed traffic congestion standards. But the staff report notes that at least 6 of these intersections are south of M-83 and would also exceed the standard under all of the alternative routes, including the master plan route.

Similarly, MCDOT's traffic modeling estimates a 55% reduction in travel time for the master plan route and a 37% reduction for Alternative 5, compared to not doing anything at all. (Alternative 5 proposes widening Route 355 and adding service roads.) The staff report notes that the 37% reduction represents a trip that is 3 minutes shorter.

The staff report also points out that MCDOT used a roadway width of less than 150 feet to estimate how many properties each alternative route would disturb or displace. However, 150 feet is the standard roadway width in the current county road code. In addition, MCDOT did not estimate how many properties stormwater management and noise abatement measures might affect. Thus, MCDOT's estimates of the number of affected properties are probably too low.

As for the cost of building M-83, MCDOT estimates for the build alternatives range from $41 million for the TSM/TDM alternative to $357 million for the master plan route. But these estimates are probably too low as well.

According to the staff report, MCDOT's estimates of environmental impacts do not account for stormwater management and the effects of retaining walls. For example, the master plan route would require a retaining wall 400 feet long along Great Seneca Creek, most of which would be in the flood plain within 20-30 feet of the stream channel.

Along Whetstone Run, the master plan route would have to be built on fill, with a retaining wall next to the stream channel. And while the smaller stream reaches may not have delineated flood plains, they have wetlands that function much like flood plains.

What's more, much of the master plan route goes through parkland, including Great Seneca Creek Park and the North Germantown Greenway Stream Valley Park. According to the staff report, the master plan route would have "calamitous" effects on 3 of the largest biodiversity areas in the county, far beyond the official limits of disturbance. And the staff report recommends mitigating impacts on parkland through a combination of trails, environmental projects, and replacement of parkland with land of equal or greater value.

So how much would it cost to build M-83, including parkland mitigation and the environmental requirements of building across streams and along stream valleys? Presumably more than MCDOT estimates.

For now, asking MCDOT to evaluate a transit alternative is a good idea, and so is repeating the Planning Board's 20-year-old request to remove the alternative route through Goshen. But ultimately, it's time for Montgomery County to say no at last to this environment-destroying, obsolete, expensive highway.

Perhaps in the early 1960s, transportation meant moving cars, and the environment was supposed to make way for progress. But it's 2013. Shouldn't we know better by now?

The Planning Board will review the alternatives for Midcounty Highway in Silver Spring on Thursday, November 21, beginning at 6 pm. If you want the Planning Board review to include your thoughts about this project, you can send written comments by e-mail through Wednesday.

Roads


Maryland will pay for underused I-95 toll lanes

Maryland highway planners predicted that if the state didn't build 7 miles of toll lanes on I-95 north of Baltimore, the road would back up for hours every day. But when the $1.1 billion expansion opens in 2014, it won't even collect $10 million a year in tolls.


Rendering of future I-95/I-695 interchange with toll lanes from MdTA.

When former Governor Robert Ehrlich's administration decided in 2003 to add toll lanes to I-95 north of Baltimore, the traffic forecast for 2020 was 238,000 vehicles per day. Now the state predicts 186,000 daily drivers in 2020. Even that assumes growth of 1% per year, although traffic has been flat since at least 2006.

The toll lanes, their promoters said, would benefit even those who can't afford to pay by taking traffic off the free lanes. Tolls would be set to attract as many cars to the pay lanes as they could carry without backing up. But that policy, it turns out, would only yield $2 or $3 million a year in revenue, barely more than the cost of collecting tolls, so Maryland boosted the rates to match the per-mile charge on the Intercounty Connector.

With a rush-hour toll of $1.75, the 4 toll lanes will carry less than 7% of the total traffic on the 12-lane highway. Truck drivers will avoid them, the Maryland Transportation Authority's consultants say, "due to the minimal benefit for trucks in saving small amounts of time." Except during exceptional traffic jams, nearly the only users will be drivers affluent enough not to care much about the toll, leading some to call them "Lexus lanes."

But folks who can't afford to use the Lexus lanes will pay a hefty price for them. When construction began, the Ehrlich administration estimated the cost at $830 million. The price tag has now grown by a third, even though transportation officials eliminated some expensive flyover access ramps as a cost-saving measure after Governor Martin O'Malley took office in 2007.

The net toll revenue of around $5 million a year (after subtracting toll collection expenses) won't begin to pay off the hundreds of millions of dollars in construction debt the state has taken on. The bill will go to drivers on the Bay Bridge, Harbor Tunnel, and other roadways the transportation authority operates, unless it raids the tax-supported Transportation Trust Fund as it did to pay for the Intercounty Connector.

Even toll road enthusiasts admit that the I-95 toll lanes are a "disappointment," built to meet forecasts that are "now seen as an absurd basis for planning." This debacle was in fact quite foreseeable. It's a lesson highway planners should take to heart.

Transit


BRT is great, but highway buses aren't BRT

Are highway toll lanes a great way to provide rapid bus service all over the region, or a sneaky way to widen roads under the auspices of improving transit?


Photo from Washington State DOT on Flickr.

Planners at the Transportation Planning Board (TPB) are currently preparing a Regional Transportation Priorities Plan. It will be a sort of wish list of transportation projects and strategies the DC region may want to consider funding some time in the future.

One interesting concept they propose is to widen nearly every highway in the region with a new set of variably-priced toll lanes, like the express lanes that recently opened on the Beltway in Virginia.

The idea is that tolls would be set high enough to ensure traffic on the lanes moves quickly, which would simultaneously improve car congestion and provide all the benefits of a dedicated busway. Sounds great, except it never works that way in real life.

Why this won't work as promised

There are two big problems with this approach.

First, transit is most effective when it's located along dense, mixed-use corridors, where riders can walk to their destination on at least one end of the route. Highways never work very well, because the land use surrounding highways is inevitably spread out and car-oriented nearly all the time.

Even Metrorail stations in the most prosperous parts of the region have trouble attracting development if they're in a highway median.

And without surface bus lanes on downtown streets, highway buses will get clogged in downtown traffic just like cars.

That's not to say highways shouldn't have good buses. Of course they should, because there are some trips that can be served that way. But you will never succeed in building a truly great transit system when it's built as an afterthought to highways, because the land use drives ridership.

That brings up the second big problem: Transit lines that are promised as an afterthought to highway expansion are always the first thing to be cut when money runs low.

That's exactly what happened on both the Beltway express lanes in Virginia and on the ICC in Maryland, which both use variably-priced tolls to keep traffic moving.

In Virginia, the Beltway HOT lanes were originally sold as "HOT/BRT lanes." But planners stopped promising BRT before construction even started. Now there are a handful of commuter buses that use the HOT lanes, but they're nothing like a true all-day BRT line.

In Maryland, planners never promised BRT on the ICC, but they did promise good bus service. Lo and behold, just a couple of years after opening the ICC, the state proposed to eliminate 3 of its 5 bus routes.

Today, neither the Beltway nor the ICC have bus service anywhere near as good as the regular bus lines on 16th Street in DC or Columbia Pike in Virginia. Say nothing of BRT. On the other hand, those highways got built.

A better alternate exists, but isn't in the plan

Oddly, the TPB's proposed plan doesn't say anything about BRT on arterial roads, where it's more likely to do the most good.

Arterial roads have the most demand for bus service, and produce the most bus ridership, precisely because they're the main streets with all the mixed-use destinations.

That's why Montgomery County, Arlington, and Alexandria are all working on actual BRT projects on arterial roads.

But the upcoming BRT lines in Montgomery, Arlington, and Alexandria could be so much more effective if they were coordinated into a larger regional network. As the main cross-jurisdictional planning agency for the DC region, TPB should be helping to plan that network, with lines in Fairfax, Prince George's, and DC.

Instead, they're mucked up pushing a highway plan that doesn't really do much good for transit.

Tell TPB to look at arterial BRT instead

The draft Regional Transportation Priorities Plan does say arterials should have "bus priority," such as MetroExtra-like limited stop routes. That's good, but why not push for something better? With many jurisdictions looking at arterial BRT anyway, there's no reason to hold back.

TPB is good at studying alternatives. In fact, they've already completed multiple studies looking at the variably-priced lanes idea. They should give at least as much attention to arterial BRT.

TPB is still accepting public comments on its draft plan, but today is the last day. They need to hear that a few buses won't convince transit advocates to support the biggest expansion of sprawl-inducing highway capacity in the DC region since Eisenhower. They need to hear that the proper place for transit is arterial roads, not highways.

Roads


Will Montgomery fund a new sprawl highway?

Montgomery County residents say the proposed Midcounty Highway between Gaithersburg and Clarksburg costs too much, cuts through sensitive park and agricultural land, and won't solve the area's traffic challenges. But will the county decide to build it anyway?


TAME members at last night's public hearing at Seneca Valley High School in Germantown.

Midcounty Highway Extended, or M83, first showed up in area master plans in the 1960s. If built as planned, it would be a 6-lane controlled-access highway parallel to Route 355 on the east side of I-270. Montgomery County would pay for the project completely, presumably to avoid complying with stringent federal environmental regulations.

Former County Executive Doug Duncan revived the project several years ago, and the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) continues to push the highway forward today. MCDOT just completed an Environmental Effects Review earlier this year and will seek support from the County Council and County Executive Ike Leggett later this year to include the project in next year's budget.

Last night, the Maryland Department of the Environment and the Army Corps of Engineers held a public hearing at Seneca Valley High School in Germantown regarding whether they should grant a joint permit to impact wetlands and streams in the highway's path. Dozens of highway opponents from the Transit Alternatives to the Midcounty Highway Extended (TAME) Coalition, many of whom have fought the project for years, turned out in force to testify against the project. There were other voices in the crowd as well, in particular a contingent opposing the alternative through their neighborhood, but supporting the highway if it went through someone else's backyard.


Alternative routes being studied for Midcounty Highway. Image from MCDOT.

MCDOT originally evaluated 11 alternatives, and has since narrowed the field down to just 6, including a no-build option. Alternatives 4, 8, and 9 are the most controversial and involve the most new pavement and right-of-way through environmentally sensitive areas and existing neighborhoods. They also happen to be MCDOT's preferred alternatives. MCDOT estimates that Alternative 9 would cost $350 million to build, though local activists say it could be double that.

Alternative 2, the cheapest option, would make improvements to Route 355 and use transportation demand management (TDM) to give travelers other ways to get around, while alternative 5 involves widening it. MCDOT did not look at any transit alternatives. Their report contains a footnote saying that the community requested a transit alternative, but says that the county's Bus Rapid Transit plan is still too nascent to be considered.

MCDOT contends that new construction would impact only 0.9 acres of wetlands because they propose building bridges over and through wetland areas. Yet it is clear that the construction process to build those bridges will require filling in parts of the wetland areas and compacting their soils, which are key for filtration and other ecosystem functions. Over the long term, more pavement over wetlands means more polluted stormwater runoff into waterways already under threat from other development, such as Ten Mile Creek.


Impacts of each proposed M83 alignment. MCDOT's favored alignments are in dark grey. TAME prefers alignments 2, 5 and the no-build option. Data from MCDOT's executive study and traffic projections.

In addition to water quality impacts, opponents pointed out a litany of other impacts from Alternatives 4, 8, and 9, including additional carbon emissions from induced traffic, impacts to the county's prized Agricultural Reserve, the loss of parkland, the division of neighborhoods, the taking of homes and local businesses, and more.

Local activists also questioned whether M83, if built, would even provide the traffic relief that transportation officials say it would provide. Indeed, MCDOT's own projections show more traffic-jammed intersections if it builds any of M83's more costly alignments.

For the $350 million it costs to build M83, Montgomery County could build Alternative 2 and 20-45 miles of the proposed bus rapid transit plan, if you use the federal average cost per mile to build BRT. This would enable a high quality transit connection and a viable alternative to driving between Clarksburg, Gaithersburg, and points south. But this alternative has never been evaluated.

Looking at the chart above, it's easy to do the math. The county's favored alignments destroy the most acreage of parkland, farmland, and wetlands, take the most property from local businesses and residences, cost the most, and still have more failing intersections than the cheapest, lowest impact alternatives.

Later this year, the issue will go before the County Council, and then to the County Executive, who will both have a chance to weigh in on whether to include funds to continue the project in next year's budget. It remains to be seen whether the County leaders will continue their progressive planning tradition by investing scarce local dollars in transit and smart growth, or whether they sink hundreds of millions into a 1960's-era sprawl highway. If they check their math, the choice should be simple.

The Maryland Department of the Environment and Army Corps of Engineers will accept written comments until August 21. If you'd like to see Montgomery County consider real alternatives to Midcounty Highway, you can contact them using this form.

Roads


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.

Support Us
DC Maryland Virginia Arlington Alexandria Montgomery Prince George's Fairfax Charles Prince William Loudoun Howard Anne Arundel Frederick Tysons Corner Baltimore Falls Church Fairfax City
CC BY-NC