A political, civic and business coalition launched a campaign Monday to build support for what one leader described as “transformative” change along traffic-choked Interstate 270 in Maryland.
For their campaign kickoff, the group was savvy about picking a backdrop: They positioned themselves atop a slope in Germantown leading down to the highway. Through the wrap-up of their news conference about 9:15 a.m., the southbound traffic remained heavy and slow heading to the Capital Beltway, 16 miles away.
The coalition wants to revive dormant state studies that could lead to the addition of express toll lanes, which could manage traffic and provide lane space and financial support for a regional rapid bus system. The regional buses would provide a limited stop service between Frederick and Rock Spring Park in the North Bethesda area, offering connections along the way to other transit and bus services. The coalition also supports construction of a local rapid bus system, known as the Corridor Cities Transitway, to link centers of activity between Shady Grove and Clarksburg.
Also part of this long-range plan for the corridor are a variety of other transit, cycling, pedestrian and road upgrades.
The costs of this long-range program would be in the billions of dollars. Supporters are looking to the express lane tolling as a key source of revenue. Several advocates pointed to Virginia’s network of high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes, partly financed by enlisting private partners to build the HOT lanes in exchange for the right to collect the toll revenue.
“It’s time for us to think of this situation in a transformative manner,” said Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.), the honorary chairman of Fix270NOW. Incremental fixes won’t work for such a big people-moving problem, he said. “We’ve been thinking small-ball for too long.”
Richard Parsons, vice chairman of the Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance, a business and civic advocacy group with parallel interests, said the new coalition welcomes the plan presented by Gov. Larry Hogan (R) to award $100 million for innovative congestion management programs on I-270. The coalition’s theme is that I-270, the main stem of the suburban technology corridor as well as the key route for thousands of commuters headed to and from the region’s core, needs much more help than that.
In Maryland’s transportation planning system, local government support for projects is a prominent element in state financing decisions. So the Fix270NOW group wants to get a clear statement from the Montgomery County and Frederick County governments that the improvement of I-270 is a top transportation priority. Once that status is clear, the group wants the Maryland Department of Transportation to revive work on two studies, now many years old, that looked into travel solutions for I-270 and the west side of the Capital Beltway in Maryland.
“It’s time to finish those studies,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who also spoke in support of the new group.
The Commonwealth Transportation Board, Virginia’s top policymaking panel on transportation, has expressed interest in engaging Maryland in a discussion of cross-Potomac transportation improvements. Some advocates for congestion relief say it would be logical to extend Virginia’s Capital Beltway HOT lanes from the Tysons Corner area across the American Legion Bridge and north to I-270.
But the Hogan administration has been cool to this idea. During an online discussion with Dr. Gridlock readers in July, state Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn noted that “in Virginia and Maryland, these express toll lanes require substantial upfront state investment into the projects that will typically not be recovered.”
“Congestion-busting solutions” — a term Rahn applied to multibillion-dollar programs that take many years to complete — can’t be supported by the financial resources available in Maryland, he said.
Maryland has built several express tolling systems in recent years. The Intercounty Connector (ICC) in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties features all-electronic tolling at rates that vary with the time of day. Last year, the state opened the I-95 Express Toll Lanes in the middle of Interstate 95 north of Baltimore, using a tolling system similar to that on the ICC.
But Maryland has nothing quite like the Virginia HOT lanes, which vary the tolls based on the level of traffic to maintain steady speeds and offer a free ride to carpoolers using a specialized type of E-ZPass called the Flex.
Parsons said that once the state studies were revived, transportation planners could review what type of express lanes might work best on I-270.
Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, was skeptical of the express lanes approach for I-270. “Widened highways in metropolitan areas can fill up again in as little as five years,” he said in a statement Monday.
Instead, Schwartz recommended extending the I-270 HOV lane to the American Legion Bridge, expanding MARC commuter train service from Frederick, enhancing commuter bus service in the I-270 corridor and encouraging development around transit centers.