Environmentalists Protest Plans to Widen I-270

By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Environmental groups are protesting Maryland's plans to reduce traffic congestion in the rapidly growing Interstate 270 corridor by widening the highway, saying it would only encourage sprawl and bring more traffic.

Most of the public attention on the state's plans to better move people through the I-270 corridor in upper Montgomery and Frederick counties has focused on efforts to build a north-south 14-mile transit line -- either light rail or bus rapid transit -- between the Shady Grove Metro station and the Clarksburg area. However, environmental groups that have long supported a Corridor Cities Transitway say state plans to pair it with 30 miles of highway widening would defeat the goal of trying to get people out of their cars.

"The plans for widening I-270 reflect a business-as-usual philosophy, a throwback to a 1950s 'roads first' approach rather than a forward-looking one that emphasizes transit and smart growth," the Montgomery County chapter of the Sierra Club wrote to council members Sunday.

The highway proposal, estimated to cost about $4 billion, drew the most attention Tuesday when the Montgomery County Council discussed the overall project. The council had planned to vote on a proposal, but council President Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville) said he postponed the decision until September to give council members more time to consider it.

"I think everyone agrees something needs to be done on I-270," Andrews said after the meeting. He said he thinks any resulting sprawl would be offset in part by the fact that the new lanes would be designed to encourage people to carpool or take buses.

"You want to move as many people as possible in as few vehicles as possible," Andrews said.

I-270 is stop-and-go during much of the morning and evening rush hours. It carries long-distance interstate traffic in addition to heavy commuter traffic between Washington area jobs and workers' homes in upper Montgomery, Frederick County, central Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Many public officials and business groups have called for the transitway to be light rail, which is projected to cost $777.5 million. However, a state study showed that only a less expensive bus rapid transit system, estimated to cost $450 million, would attract enough riders to meet federal funding requirements for cost-effectiveness.

In two hours of discussion, council members appeared divided over a council committee's recommendation this month to support a bus rapid transit line in addition to widening I-270 by up to four lanes. Those lanes, known as high-occupancy toll lanes, would be free to carpools and buses and charge a toll for other vehicles. The committee also recommended that the state further study adding only two lanes through the county's agricultural preserve north of Clarksburg and making those lanes reversible to carry traffic in the peak direction.

Montgomery Executive Isiah Leggett (D), who supports light rail for the transitway, has endorsed a competing highway plan that would also add up to four lanes -- one HOV lane and one regular lane in each direction. That plan also would limit the highway's footprint north of Clarksburg with only two additional lanes -- one HOV lane in each direction. Leggett has also asked the state to study the impacts of opening HOV lanes to toll payers.

Richard Parsons, a consultant for the project's advocates, said motorists stuck on I-270 need transit and more road space.

Both would help focus future growth, he said, "so it doesn't become so congested that people move out to Pennsylvania -- that's sprawl-inducing."

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