December 16, 2011

The Intercounty Connector just opened, but its $2.6 billion price, plus debt costs, have left Maryland’s transportation budget in shambles . Worse, according to studies conducted prior to construction , the ICC won’t even relieve traffic on the Beltway and Interstates 95 and 270.

Nonetheless, many ICC proponents have moved on to pushing for a full Outer Beltway — a second ring highway around the Washington region that was first envisioned in the 1950s. Think Houston, which is now working on its third ring.

This might sound good in the abstract. After all, everyone knows traffic in the region is bad. But another Beltway would make our problems worse, not better.

Why?

Because of “induced demand.” When Maryland widened I-270 in the 1990s, planners thought the added lanes would reduce congestion for decades. Instead, the road became even more traffic-clogged within a fraction of that time. One transportation official said in 1999, “I just didn’t in my wildest dreams think it would fill up that fast.”

What happened? The extra lanes drew development away from other areas, including the District and Prince George’s County. More people moved even farther out, and these commuters filled up the road. All those drivers who were frustrated by I-270 before the project were left no better off.

A recent study confirmed the induced-demand effect. As the Wall Street Journal reported in May, every new stretch of interstate highway built in metropolitan areas creates a countervailing rise in vehicle miles. In short: no benefit.

The Outer Beltway wouldn’t even go where most people need it to. Analysis of a 2004 Virginia Department of Transportation study showed that 92 percent of commuting trips in Northern Virginia and Montgomery County are toward and away from the regional core, or take place near or inside the Beltway. An Outer Beltway would not be of much use to these drivers.

With the economic crisis and federal belt-tightening straining government budgets, it would be much smarter to help existing commuters on problem spots such as I-66, Virginia’s Route 7, and I-270.

Despite all this, the Outer Beltway concept has never quite gone away. Influential Tysons Corner developer John Tilghman “Til” Hazel has long been an outspoken proponent. In the 1980s, Hazel made news for advocating to have highways routed in ways that would benefit his real estate holdings, which neatly illustrates the economics that have kept the Outer Beltway alive. The sprawl it would generate would unquestionably benefit today’s landowners, builders and developers in the same way. It just wouldn’t do anything for all those who are currently struggling with the sprawl we have now.

Instead of getting filled with thousands of new houses that will add traffic, our Virginia and Maryland farmland should keep growing crops for our tables. An Outer Beltway would instead create pressure to pave over Montgomery County’s Agricultural Reserve.

Desires have changed dramatically since the Outer Beltway was first proposed. Today, many people want to be able to live closer to their workplaces and near transit. Instead of building the Outer Beltway, smart investments can create more living and transportation options, save commuters money and make our entire transportation system work better.

We should grow in the places with existing infrastructure, such as the many Metro stations with room to develop, giving new residents the option not to drive if they choose.

We should connect local roads into networks rather than building more mega-roads. Networks spread traffic around and give people shorter ways to get where they want to go. Unfortunately, the Virginia Department of Transportation recently weakened policies requiring more connections in new subdivisions.

We should build light-rail lines and dedicated lanes for rapid buses. Everyone should have the choice to take an express bus or light rail instead of a highway.

And we should draw from our history of building great towns with work, homes, schools, stores and recreation set close together. Make it safe to walk or bicycle, at least to run errands or get to a transit station, freeing up space for those trips that do require a car.

All this would be no more difficult or expensive than the highway projects we hear about over and over. But these steps would actually make your life better. An Outer Beltway wouldn’t.

The writer is the editor of the blog Greater Greater Washington. He participates in The Post’s Local Blog Network.