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Maryland’s proposed expansion of Beltway and I-270 ranks among top U.S. ‘boondoggles,’ group says

Traffic from the Beltway and Interstate 270 merge in 2004. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

Maryland’s $9 billion plan to expand the Beltway and Interstate 270 is among the nation’s biggest boondoggles, a public-interest advocacy group said Tuesday in a new report.

The report — issued by U.S. PIRG Education Fund and Frontier Group — highlights nine highway projects, including Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s plan to widen certain roadways using public-private partnerships and tolling to pay for them.

The advocates say these projects are unwise for several reasons. They say expanding or building new highways always leads to more congestion over time through the wholly predictable phenomenon of “induced demand”: When new capacity opens up, more commuters and cars — not to mention housing developers and businesses — begin to use the highway until congestion returns. They say building new lanes is also irresponsible when the nation is facing an enormous backlog of needed repairs on existing roads, bridges and other infrastructure — not to mention mass transit systems, such as Baltimore’s and Washington’s. The report advocates a “fix-it-first” policy.

The report also argues that even with public-private financing, states such as Maryland will probably incur additional debt to expand highways, given the stagnant revenue coming from the gas tax. And it makes the case that building more highways is the wrong move when the United States should be promoting alternative ways of getting around that do not rip up neighborhoods and landscapes and dump more pollutants into the air.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan proposes widening the Beltway and I-270 to include 4 toll lanes

The latest report comes as Hogan (R) said the U.S. Interior Department has agreed to evaluate the transfer of part of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, which would also be expanded as part of Hogan’s traffic plan. The plan, unveiled in September, would rely on public-private partnerships — and thus tolls — for at least part of its funding.

Amelia Chasse, a spokeswoman for the governor, said Hogan’s plan to expand I-270 and the Beltway is in keeping with a balanced approach to transportation that includes robust spending on transit in addition to highway funding.

“Governor Hogan has spent more on transit projects than any other Maryland governor, including moving forward with construction of the $5 billion Purple Line light rail in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, and signing legislation to provide historic funding to fix the Washington, D.C. Metro system,” Chasse said in an email. She also said that the highway expansion plan is meant to address studies showing that the Washington metropolitan area and the state have some of the worst congestion and commutes in the United States. That congestion leads to higher costs in wasted time and wasted fuel, as well as additional emissions.

“Simply put, improvements to relieve congestion on our highways are essential, along with expanded transit options like the Purple Line and Metro improvements,” Chasse said.

Breakthrough in Maryland on Metro funding, as Hogan and legislature come together

Of 32 projects the advocates viewed as “dubious” in other “highway boondoggle” reports, three have been canceled, three were being revised and 13 were receiving additional study, the advocates say. Ten projects are now under construction. Last year’s report singled out Virginia’s plan to widen some of I-66 as part of its effort to use dynamic tolling to ease congestion in the corridor.

The other expansion plans or new highway projects singled out for criticism in PIRG’s latest report include:

  • Inner-City Connector on I-49 in Shreveport, La. ($547 million)
  • Widening U.S. Highway 101 in San Mateo, Calif. ($534 million)
  • Expanding I-35 in Austin ($8.1 billion)
  • LBJ East expansion in Dallas ($1.6 billion)
  • Widening 470 miles of the Pennsylvania Turnpike ($6.9 billion)
  • I-94 North-South expansion project in Wisconsin ($1.7 billion)
  • Rebuilding the I-285 and State Route 400 interchange in Atlanta ($596 million)
  • North Spokane Corridor in Spokane, Wash. ($1.5 billion)

The report can be found here.

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