“The explosion of freight truck traffic is punishing aging highways,” the state highway and transportation group said in a 2009 report.
“When we’re talking about infrastructure, we never compute the cost of inaction,” Rendell said. “The best example? The Army Corps of Engineers had a request in to rebuild the levees in New Orleans before Katrina. It would have been a little under a billion dollars. They said there was no money. After Katrina the federal government spent $17 billion on repair. That’s what the public’s got to start understanding. The cost of inaction is greater than the cost of doing something.”
They will build a tougher Beltway this time around.
The need is not so great in the highway’s lower crescent, the 22.1 miles south of the Potomac. Three mega projects along its length — the “mixing bowl” interchange with I-95, the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and the HOT lanes — have given Virginia a chance to rehabilitate all but three or four miles of Beltway pavement.
The roadway is longer and the challenge greater on the Maryland side. When officials there are able to rebuild, the new crushed stone underbed will be about the same depth as when the road was built in the 1960s. But the asphalt will be thicker, and about 75 percent of the new road will have nine inches of concrete sandwiched between that underbed and the asphalt.
“The Beltway is not a normal roadway as far as the loading we see from traffic volume and truck volume on it,” said Simmons, the highway administrator.
That volume is what makes major rehabilitation so challenging and expensive. A few years ago, there was an estimate it would cost about $3 billion just to preserve Maryland’s 41.7 miles of Beltway, and perhaps twice that amount to address congestion and update interchanges with the roadways that have burgeoned in the decades since the Beltway was built.
The most effective, least expensive way to tackle the job would be to tear out several lanes at a time. If that were the plan in either Maryland or Virginia, someone could calculate a bottom-line cost for the project. But it simply can’t be done.
“With the Capital Beltway being the Capital Beltway, you’re not going to come in to shut down the Capital Beltway to fully reconstruct it, so that’s the challenge we deal with,” Simmons said.
The way Simmons will have to deal with it is one lane at a time.
“It gets very challenging to be able to go with a one-lane perspective and it’s very expensive,” he said. “The more stages you have, the more expensive. When you can only work in the middle of the night, the cost goes up, but you get out of the way of rush hour.”
Right now, major segments of the Maryland part of the Beltway are in a downward spiral, notably those in the eastern part that curves through Prince George’s County. The underbed is rotten, so a fresh asphalt surface doesn’t last. As the surface gets rough, traffic slows and backups begin. When the surface needs more frequent repaving, traffic backs up. And when the time comes that it all is torn up for replacement, traffic will back up.
“There is going to come a point in time when we’re going to need to consider that strategy of doing in-depth reconstruction versus resurfacing,” Simmons said. “But we want to be able to keep people moving as best we can.”