A coalition of regional business groups will recommend today that Maryland and Virginia suspend plans to widen the Capital Beltway and instead use the estimated $6 billion in savings to build a new network of parkways outside the ring road.
"If you widen a dysfunctional highway, you just get a wider dysfunctional highway," said Robert T. Grow, transportation director for the Greater Washington Board of Trade, the lead group in the coalition.
Rather than proceed with the plans to widen the Beltway to as many as 12 lanes that are now under consideration in both states, the coalition is pressing for two new bypasses running to the west and east of the Beltway, each crossing the Potomac River.
The business leaders, who are scheduled to announce their agenda at a news conference today, are also repeating their call for a new highway between the Dulles International Airport area and Interstate 270 in Montgomery County. Moreover, they are urging the resurrection of plans to build the intercounty connector in the Maryland suburbs, which were derailed last month when Gov. Parris N. Glendening announced his opposition.
William D. Lecos, the Board of Trade vice president, said the coalition's top transportation priorities are replacing the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and extending Metrorail through Tysons Corner to Dulles. But he said only about $600 million of the Beltway savings should be spent on these projects, with the balance allocated to the four new highways.
"We can't count on just widening existing assets," he said. "You can't make a dent in the problem unless you build the connecting roads."
This heightened activism on the part of the business community comes as several regional planning organizations are hammering out the details of 20-year plans for the region's highway and transit network. Lecos said the business community was articulating a vision that elected officials are too "self-constrained" to advocate.
Each of the proposals for the four new highways has previously confronted vigorous opposition from environmental activists who have warned that the roads would encourage further sprawl.
The business initiative was welcomed yesterday by Fairfax City Mayor John Mason, vice chairman of a bipartisan commission in Northern Virginia that has worked to identify regional transportation priorities. But Mason said the business coalition's philosophy differs from his commission's approach in two ways: It emphasizes building new highways over expanding existing ones and directs investment overwhelmingly into projects outside the Beltway rather than upgrading roads and transit on both sides of the ring road. The business leaders' skepticism about the merits of widening the Beltway, however, puts them in the unusual position of agreeing with the environmental community on the issue.
"Before we go about widening a network that doesn't work, we should provide an alternative," said Bob Chase of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, which has joined the Board of Trade-led coalition. He warned that widening the Beltway would cause "chaos and incredible disruption to the region."
Across the Potomac, the Montgomery and Prince George's County chambers of commerce have also signed off on the campaign to shelve the proposed Beltway project in favor of new highways farther out in the suburbs.