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Transitway or toll lanes: How will Hogan relieve traffic in I-270 corridor?

File: Traffic from the outer loop of the Beltway, I-495, left, merges with the traffic from I-270, center, during the evening rush hour on I-495. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Anyone who has slogged through rush hour on Interstate 270 knows that traffic is only getting worse as upper Montgomery County, Frederick County and points beyond continue to grow. But whether relief from gridlock will come in the form of dedicated bus lanes or a wider I-270 with express toll lanes likely will depend on what Maryland Gov.-elect Larry Hogan (R) decides in the coming months.

Under Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), the Maryland Transit Administration has focused on planning a Corridor Cities Transitway (CCT) that would have buses ferry people between the Shady Grove Metrorail station and the Metropolitan Grove area of Gaithersburg in dedicated, traffic-free lanes. O’Malley’s Republican predecessor, Gov. Robert Ehrlich, also had considered the possibility of widening I-270 by adding express toll lanes — an approach that the O’Malley administration dropped. Environmental groups had said a wider highway would only lead to more car-dependent sprawl.

If Hogan sticks to campaign statements that he would divert more transportation money from expanding mass transit to improving roads, the idea of a wider I-270 could gain new life. What that would mean for transit planning in the I-270 corridor remains unknown. Hogan didn’t say much, if anything, during the campaign about the future of a Corridor Cities Transitway.

The governor-elect has said he won’t make any policy announcements until he takes office Jan. 21, but transit advocates are nervous. Hogan said during the campaign that both a $2.45-billion light-rail Purple Line planned for southern Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and a $2.9-billion light-rail Red Line planned for Baltimore would be too expensive. Hogan’s running mate, Lt. Gov.-elect Boyd Rutherford, said during a campaign debate on WAMU-FM, that he “wouldn’t lose sleep over the Purple Line being cancelled.”

The Corridor Cities Transitway’s best hope for survival may be its lower price tag, compared to the two light-rail projects. Its first nine-mile phase is estimated to cost $545 million in 2012 dollars, though planners say that estimate will rise with inflation and more recent design changes.

Montgomery officials say the I-270 corridor is critical to Maryland’s economy because of the number of people who work in  its biotechnology companies. Some of the development that Montgomery’s growth plans call for in west Gaithersburg couldn’t go forward without a transitway — a provision county planners say would ensure that new traffic wouldn’t swamp already congested roads.

I-270 also carries Washington-area workers who have found more affordable homes in upper Montgomery, Frederick, West Virginia and southern Pennsylvania. Traffic is expected to worsen as those areas continue to grow.

At a briefing to the Montgomery planning board Thursday morning, Rick Kiegel, the Maryland Transit Administration’s head of CCT planning, said he didn’t know what impact Hogan’s election would have on the project. Kiegel told the board he likely wouldn’t know for about six months.

He said about 15 percent of the design work is done for the project’s first nine-mile section between the Shady Grove Metrorail station and Metropolitan Grove. If construction money becomes available — and that’s a big “if” — construction could begin in spring 2018, with the line opening in 2021, he said.

However, Kiegel said, the project has no construction money in the state’s current six-year transportation budget.

The line is expected to have about 36,000 boardings daily in 2035.

Kiegel said the state has stopped planning for the transitway’s second phase, which would extend north to the former Comsat facility south of Clarksburg. That phase could be built, he said, after Clarksburg and Germantown develop more, providing more riders to offset the costs.