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INTERSTATE 270 CORRIDOR

Many at Meeting Call for Transit, Widening of I-270 to Ease Traffic

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By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 17, 2009

More than 250 people turned out at a public meeting in Gaithersburg last night to seek relief from twice-daily stop-and-go traffic along the rapidly growing Interstate 270 corridor in Montgomery and Frederick counties.

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Many at the meeting, sponsored by two state transportation agencies, said Maryland should widen the north-south highway with express toll lanes and move forward with plans to build a light rail or rapid bus line nearby.

"Traffic on this highway is intolerable and it's getting worse," said Montgomery Council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large), chairman of its transportation committee. "Commuters are hungry for transit options."

But even the project's staunchest supporters said it will be years before anyone hops on light rail or speeds up I-270 at rush hour. The Maryland Transit Administration's study of a corridor cities transitway has been underway for more than a decade, and state planners say construction wouldn't begin until at least 2015.

The 14-mile transit line, estimated to cost $450 million to $777.5 million, would have to compete with transit projects nationwide for scarce federal construction money. Those include Maryland's plans for the 16-mile Purple Line to connect the inner suburbs of Montgomery and Prince George's counties and a 14-mile Red Line through Baltimore. Transit experts have said it would be unusual for the Federal Transit Administration to fund two projects in the same state simultaneously and rarer still for it to support two in the same urban area.

Although few debate the need for a corridor cities transitway, it has enjoyed little of the public spotlight shone on the Purple Line, which stems from controversy over the $1.68 billion project's route.

"We do believe someday it's going to happen," Gaithersburg Mayor Sidney A. Katz said before the hearing. "The question is when. There's obviously a need. . . . But there's a finite amount of dollars, so we're going to have to prove our case."

The corridor cities transitway would extend from the Shady Grove Metro station to just south of Clarksburg and would connect Metro's Red Line with the MARC Brunswick Line at Metropolitan Grove in Gaithersburg. The line would have about 12 new stations, according to the MTA.

Highway improvements were studied for 31 miles of I-270, between I-370 and the Route 15 area of Frederick. The highway improvements would cost about $3.8 billion, according to the study.

The initial study, which concluded in 2002, considered widening I-270 with regular or carpool lanes and adding light rail, bus rapid transit or upgraded bus service. The latest findings examined widening I-270 with one or two express toll lanes. Light rail or rapid buses would run above ground and in their own lanes.

Project advocates say they're focusing on the transit portion first because it's less expensive.

"It's pretty cheap relative to other transportation projects," Montgomery County Council member Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty), who represents the area, said before the hearing. "This is actually something we could fund and build."

Knapp said he believes most people would favor light rail. But the state study found that only a less-expensive bus rapid transit system would attract enough riders to justify the cost under federal funding standards.

The I-270 corridor is considered critical to Maryland's economy because of the number of people its biotechnology companies employ. The highway also carries Washington area workers who have found more affordable homes in upper Montgomery, Frederick, West Virginia and southern Pennsylvania. Traffic is expected to worsen as the area grows. Some sections of the corridor could face 75 percent more traffic by 2030, according to the study.

Marilyn Balcombe, president of the Gaithersburg-Germantown Chamber of Commerce, said the Washington region needs a Purple Line and a corridor cities transitway.

A public hearing is set for tomorrow in Frederick, at Monocacy Middle School. The deadline for comments is July 31. More information is available at http://www.i270multimodalstudy.com.


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