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Maryland to ask companies for $100 million tech solution to ease I-270 gridlock

Traffic from the Capital Beltway merges with Interstate 270 during an evening rush hour in Maryland. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
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Highway agencies trying to ease traffic jams usually come up with their method of choice — widen a road, expand an intersection, re-time traffic signals — and then ask companies for their best price.

But Maryland’s highway agency is about to try a new approach, one that state officials believe is a first in the country.

The state will set the price — in this case, at $100 million — and ask companies to propose new high-tech ways they could reduce gridlock on Interstate 270, one of the most congested highways in the Washington suburbs. Unlike most government solicitations, the state will provide few specific requirements beyond its main directive: make traffic flow faster.

“This is purely a performance-based procurement,” said Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn. “Whoever can move the most traffic the furthest will be selected to implement their design.”

Rahn said he doesn’t know what to expect but hopes the bidders come up with solutions that state engineers haven’t even dreamed of. The request for proposals will be released in June, he said, but a timeline for the project hasn’t been finalized.

Md. Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn came with reputation as an innovator focused on results

Rahn said he believes this will be the first transportation procurement in the country that is completely open to new ideas, rather than rooted in a government-scripted plan. Even design-build contracts, in which bidders propose to build off their own designs, typically include a host of government requirements. He said he believes the solicitation also will be unique because it won’t require bidders to have done a certain amount of work in the state or in the country.

“We’re not excluding anything,” Rahn said Tuesday in a phone interview. “We’re telling the world, ‘It doesn’t matter if you’ve worked in Maryland or even in the U.S. If you’ve gotten traffic to move in Shanghai or anywhere else, you can make it work here.”

As a major artery in Maryland, I-270 connects the Capital Beltway in Bethesda with farther-out suburbs north of Washington, including Rockville and Gaithersburg. The 35-mile highway extends through Montgomery County and north to Frederick, Md., serves as a focal point for the region’s biotech companies, and carries commuters from more affordable housing into downtown Washington and other job centers. It’s a rare morning or evening traffic report that doesn’t include backups on I-270.

The work will be part of a nearly $2 billion transportation package that Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) announced to much fanfare in June.

Rahn said he doesn’t expect that the ideas will get rid of traffic congestion, but he added, “If vehicles can keep moving, it has a different impact psychologically.” It’s the constant stopping and starting, he said, “that drives people up the wall.”

Whatever new ideas work on I-270, he said, will probably be applied to other highways across the state.