The congestion on the Indian Head Highway corridor, increasingly crowded with commuter traffic from Charles County and southern Prince George's, is five to seven years away from easing, according to the Maryland State Highway Administration.
Several new major interchanges that could improve traffic at intersections now regulated by traffic lights are still just in the planning stages. That was the word from state highway project manager Heather Murphy at a meeting last week of the transportation committee of the Prince George's County Council.
These new interchanges would change the highway, also known as Route 210, into a limited-access freeway with underpasses and overpasses for cross traffic. They are expected to cost $100 million to $200 million, Murphy said. But the pace of the improvements will hinge on the availability of state funding, she said, and that can't come soon enough.
"If we don't do anything, it's going to be bumper-to-bumper all the way up," she said. "We're right there at capacity." Even a recent "minor repaving very much backed things up." In rush hours, she said, intersections up and down the corridor are "failing," meaning it takes two traffic lights' time for a vehicle to get through them.
"If they're failing now and there won't be construction for five to seven years, it's going to be absolute, total gridlock," predicted council member Audrey E. Scott (R-Bowie).
"It is certainly a much-needed project," Murphy said. Until work begins, she said, the state will "tweak the system," by such measures as extending right-turn lanes. Ultimately, she said, the state may include high occupancy vehicle lanes in an upgraded 210 to promote car-pooling and provide more park-and-ride lots and bus service to encourage commuters to leave their cars.
Council members expressed concern over the effect of Charles County traffic on Prince George's streets. As traffic approaches the Beltway, 40 percent of it is from Charles County, state highway officials say.
Many other commuters seek to avoid the 210 backups by taking parallel area roads toward the Beltway and Interstate 295, creating added problems for residents.
"I'd love to put up a toll," Scott said. "Of course, I'm saying that facetiously to my friends in Charles County."
Prince George's County Council members said they were unhappy with the recent construction that has turned Route 228 into a divided highway, carrying growing numbers of Charles County drivers to Indian Head Highway at Accokeek.
"It's all very good and well to blame Charles County," said council member Walter H. Maloney (D-Beltsville), "but we've got to look in our own back yard." Maloney was critical of two council actions, waiving adequate public facilities requirements for National Harbor and for developers along the route who "mitigate" the impact of their projects by paying for an extra turn lane or traffic light.
Maloney provided a brief history of the highway, which he said was built by the federal government for World War II workers who commuted from the District to the naval explosive powder plant at Indian Head. The government later deeded the road to the state, with restrictions limiting the number of access points to the highway that are "very much" still in effect, Murphy said.
"We want to see it more as a freeway and not allow any additional access," she said.
Committee Chairman Isaac J. Gourdine (D-Fort Washington) asked: "Do we do nothing or do something? We don't have control over Charles County and the citizens of Charles County. Indian Head Highway must be improved if we are going to improve the quality of life. Something has to be done."
But council member Peter A. Shapiro (D-Brentwood) wasn't so sure. "My concern is we're going to build this and still have a very big traffic problem. . . . That [building the new interchanges] will encourage new growth, exacerbate the problem," he said. "Say it's the year 2020, the improvements are done, there is new development. Where are we?"
Murphy replied: "We don't expect it to be as congested as today, not with backups forever but with some slower rush-hour traffic, some delays. But we hope it will be a little better in 2020. Our numbers are based on county land-use assumptions for development by 2020. If there is a lot more growth than projected, we could have some problems."