The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion By opposing highway expansions, Maryland politicians risk more than gridlock

A line of traffic in the northbound lanes of I-270 in Clarksburg, Md., last July. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

The five years before the pandemic saw starkly uneven job growth across the D.C. region. The big winner was Northern Virginia, where more than half the new jobs landed. The losers were mainly in suburban Maryland, which got less than 20 percent of them.

Prominent Maryland politicians now running for top statewide offices would make it harder for the big suburban employment laggards, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, to climb out of that hole. By opposing and equivocating on term-limited Gov. Larry Hogan’s (R) plan to improve and expand two of the most congested roadways in the Mid-Atlantic region — the Beltway and Interstate 270 — they would help ensure that today’s traffic jams become tomorrow’s unending gridlock.

Yes, the reasons for the region’s uneven economic growth are varied; they include taxes, regulations, housing, schools and infrastructure. Where it concerns infrastructure, however, few metrics are as important as what workers face in their daily commutes.

Virginia elected officials have recognized that for years. They’ve acted on it by advancing ambitious public-private partnerships to add toll lanes and widen the most important commuting thoroughfares west of the Potomac, including Interstates 95 and 66, as well as Northern Virginia’s portion of the Beltway.

It is true that the toll lanes will be unaffordable for some drivers, who generally will retain the option of driving at no cost on existing lanes. But the expansions now nearing completion in Northern Virginia are very likely to prevent much, much worse traffic.

Mindful of that, Mr. Hogan proposed a public-private partnership by which a consortium of companies would finance and build a similar — and complementary — system of toll roads to widen suburban Maryland’s main highways, the Beltway and I-270. The consortium would keep most of the toll revenue for decades; Marylanders would avoid a tax increase to pay for the projects, leaving the state more flexibility to focus on transit, as it should.

The governor’s plan has been met with sniping from local officials, who cite the likelihood that the expansion would force a modest number of homeowners and businesses to move. Mr. Hogan scaled back the project, but the opposition persists. Among the 10 candidates running in the gubernatorial primary July 19, most either don’t mention it or are opposed. (A notable exception is Comptroller Peter Franchot (D), who voted for it on the state’s Board of Public Works.) Both Democrats running for their party’s nomination for state comptroller, Bowie Mayor Tim Adams and Del. Brooke E. Lierman of Baltimore, are also unlikely to support the project; either could wield a veto in their capacity as a member of the state’s Board of Public Works, which vets major contracts. On the Republican side, Kelly M. Schulz, a Hogan ally who resigned as the state’s commerce secretary to run in the gubernatorial primary, also favors it.

None of the project’s opponents have proposed the only viable financing alternative: raising taxes to widen the roads. The truth is that major infrastructure projects are hard to get done without muscular leadership from the top. Virginia has had that. Maryland is wobbling.