Montgomery County leaders on Thursday urged the state's transportation chief to expand transit options as part of Maryland's plan to relieve traffic by adding toll lanes to the Capital Beltway, Interstate 270 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.
Montgomery County Council members told Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn that they appreciated the state addressing the region's crippling congestion. However, they questioned whether adding four toll lanes to each highway would make a difference — and perhaps even contribute to auto-dependent sprawl — unless additional transit options took more vehicles off the road.
Several asked Rahn to revive long-studied plans to build a bus rapid transit system — called the Corridor Cities Transitway (CCT)— in the I-270 corridor.
"Why wouldn't you think even bigger and fold in or even consider folding in the CCT and see if there are any takers?" said Council president Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda).
Council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) told Rahn that "the whole project would go down a lot easier" with Montgomery residents if the plan emphasized transit more.
"The more you use existing right of way to provide alternatives to the automobile, the more it will be easier to assuage our constituents," he said.
During a two-hour hearing, Rahn said only that transit options would be part of the negotiations as the state seeks a team of private companies to finance construction of new toll lanes as well as design, build and operate them long-term.
"We'll have the conversation to see how it all works out," Rahn said after the meeting. "We're keeping that open . . . but at the heart of it, we're focused on express toll lanes."
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) announced the plan in September, saying the state will seek a $7.6 billion public-private partnership to add toll lanes to 42 miles on the Beltway and 34 miles on I-270 from the Beltway to Frederick. The state would build and manage the 29 miles of toll lanes on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, assuming that the U.S. Interior Department transfers the road to the state. That project is estimated to cost $1.47 billion.
Maryland expects to solicit bid proposals next year. Rahn said the federal environmental review required before construction could be completed within two years, simultaneously with the bid process.
Adding a rail line as part of the project, Rahn said, would be "exponentially more expensive." The plan for a Corridor Cities Transitway, he said, ended up with a route that looked more like a local bus line than an express busway that would take traffic off I-270.
At this point, Rahn said, the state plans to allow "transit in some form" to use the toll lanes free. He also noted that the state is building the 16-mile light-rail Purple Line through the Washington suburbs via a $5.6 billion public-private partnership.
He added that motorists who use the toll lanes would free up more space for those in the regular lanes, and he reiterated that no regular lanes would be tolled. He said express toll lanes on I-95 north of Baltimore have reduced traffic in the regular lanes by 12 percent.
"Transit frees up space," said council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large). "Everybody you get into transit is somebody not on the road."
Rahn said he couldn't provide many details about what the road expansions would look like because the state hopes the bid proposals will include innovative ideas. He said he also doesn't know how much tolls would cost, although he said the companies would have to set them at rates motorists would be willing to pay. The companies, not the state, would assume the risk for how much toll revenue the lanes generate, he said.
Berliner also questioned why Maryland is pitching the idea to the private sector as express toll lanes rather than high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes, such as Virginia has added that are free to carpools.
"In Montgomery County, we've adopted a conscious policy of moving people, not vehicles," Berliner said. "HOT lanes are an important component of that philosophy."
Rahn said he understood "the desire" for more carpooling, but that was one of the details that would be part of the bid negotiations.
Council members also expressed concern about potential impacts to homes, parkland and streams that could be torn down or harmed if the Beltway were to be widened, particularly east of the I-270 spur. Several noted that Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring is just beyond the asphalt .
"Every day I drive on [the Beltway], and I think 'Where is this going to fit?'" Berliner said.
Rahn said the state will ask bidders to show how they would limit impacts and how they would work in "constrained spaces," in addition to how they could expedite construction.