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Maryland cuts funding for Corridor Cities Transitway

Traffic flows along interchanges that link I-495 and I-270 in Bethesda. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Maryland transportation officials have cut plans for a busway in upper Montgomery County from the state’s proposed transportation budget, saying the county should pay for its final design and construction.

The bus rapid transit line, known as the Corridor Cities Transitway, has been planned for more than 20 years to connect auto-dependent communities and job centers in the heavily congested Interstate 270 corridor with the Metro Red Line at Shady Grove.

The nine-mile project has been on hold since 2016, when the state postponed additional funding after spending $38 million to assess its potential environmental impacts. State officials cited budget constraints but said money could be restored if gas tax revenue picked up. Seeing the project dropped from the budget completely, some transitway advocates said, felt like the final blow.

Marilyn Balcombe, president of the Gaithersburg-Germantown Chamber of Commerce, called the news “extremely disappointing.”

“Before the message was, ‘This is an important project, but we just don’t have the money,’ ” Balcombe said. “This feels like a definitive decision has been made that this project is no longer viable.”

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Balcombe said residents, particularly in areas of the upcounty with more affordable housing, need a way out of traffic, and the county needs more transit options to attract new businesses. County growth plans also won’t allow much of the development proposed for west Gaithersburg to occur unless the transitway’s construction is funded.

“You can’t take away something without suggesting an alternative,” Balcombe sad.

Erin Henson, spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Transportation, said the state told Montgomery officials last year that it would transfer the project to the county with 30 percent of the design complete.

Henson said the state participates only in bus rapid transit projects that connect “multiple jurisdictions in more than one county and have major impacts to the regional transportation network.”

“This bus route,” Henson said in an email, “is solely located in one county, making Montgomery County the lead for future work on this local project.”

She said the state’s payments for Metro’s growing operating costs, as well as for the state’s own transit systems, have cut into money for new transit lines. By fiscal 2022, she said, Maryland’s contributions to Metro will exceed the state’s roads budget.

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The Corridor Cities Transitway started as a proposed 15-mile light-rail line between Shady Grove in Rockville and the Clarksburg area, but it was scaled back over the years to make it less expensive. Most recently, it’s been studied as a nine-mile busway between Shady Grove and the Metropolitan Grove MARC commuter rail station in Gaithersburg. The state put design work for the northern six-mile segment on hold in 2013.

The first nine-mile segment was estimated to cost about $500 million.

But some Montgomery leaders say Gov. Larry Hogan’s (R) administration has given short shrift to the county’s role as a major economic engine for the state. In addition to a growing biotech industry, the I-270 corridor has the Universities at Shady Grove, a campus for Johns Hopkins University, and the National Cancer Institute.

Chris Conklin, deputy director for the Montgomery County Department of Transportation, called the state’s move “very discouraging,” especially because so much of the upcounty’s economic development is tied to the line’s construction funding.

“There’s no [county] funding available to allocate to it at the moment,” Conklin said.

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Montgomery County Council member Tom Hucker (D-District 5), who chairs the panel’s transportation committee, said a Corridor Cities Transitway would carry far more people than many state-funded road projects.

“There are thousands of people in Gaithersburg, Germantown and Clarksburg who bought homes and invested in businesses with the promise that the state was going to build a high-quality transitway,” Hucker said.

Council member Craig Rice (D-District 2), who represents the area that the transitway would serve, said upcounty residents are “incredibly disappointed.”

“It’s relegating people to one form of getting around — driving — and we know that doesn’t work,” Rice said.

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