The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Maryland’s best traffic-relief hope is twisting in the wind

A line of traffic on northbound I-270 bakes in the 90-degree heat near Clarksburg, Md., in July 2021. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

A tidal wave of new residents and jobs is bearing down on the nation’s capital region, bringing high pressure on housing and infrastructure for the foreseeable future. “Foreseeable” is the key word because population and employment projections are available for local leaders whose most important job should be preparing to meet the predictable challenge.

Yet the Potomac River has become a dividing line between Virginia officials, whose eyes are wide open, and Maryland politicians who have stuck their heads in the sand. Nowhere is that discrepancy more apparent than in transportation — and it is Maryland commuters of every age, race and ethnicity who will pay the price.

The approaching population bulge appears lost not only on most elected officials in suburban Maryland, mainly Democrats, but also on the party’s gubernatorial nominee, Wes Moore. Mr. Moore identifies with Baltimore and has lived there for the past decade. His transportation policy, in which Maryland’s suburbs near Washington go virtually unmentioned, gives no indication that he grasps that they are full of drivers fed up with staggering traffic — or that it will get worse.

By 2045, nearly 400,000 more people, along with roughly a quarter-million new jobs, are expected to arrive in Montgomery, Prince George’s and Frederick counties. Even if post-pandemic commuting patterns shift to reflect the rise of telework, there are likely to be unprecedented demands on the capital region’s overburdened roads as well as its transit network.

Virginia has grappled with the coming onslaught by adding toll lanes to widen most of its main commuting arteries. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, proposed a similar initiative, scaled back from its original scope, to add toll lanes that would widen the Beltway near the Potomac and a portion of I-270 from Montgomery County to Frederick. Regular lanes would remain free; no one would be forced to pay tolls. The project would be financed and built by a private consortium, at minimal cost to taxpayers; in return, the consortium would keep most toll revenue in coming decades.

That plan is in limbo, awaiting federal environmental approval, which has been delayed; approval would unlock federal funding. The Federal Highway Administration, which is handling the proposal, has given no transparent explanation for the delay, fueling speculation that its knees are buckling in the face of political opposition.

The simple truth is this: Mr. Hogan’s proposal offers reasonable hope that the area’s bad congestion will not worsen. Without it, longer commutes are inevitable.

The problem is that suburban politicians, mainly Democrats, offer impediments to Mr. Hogan’s plan and no concrete alternatives. Mr. Moore, for his part, glosses over the congestion, the certainty that more is coming, and says he wants to judge transportation projects by their equity and environmental impact, along with the quality of community input.

That’s a likely recipe for inertia and paralysis, which has already become the default where U.S. infrastructure construction is concerned. Needless to say, building new roads, bridges, tunnels and subway lines generates pushback. Leaders, if they are to achieve anything big — including construction projects — need to manage that and overcome it.

All over the United States, building ambitious infrastructure has become a nightmarish slog of litigation, special interest obstructionism and institutional dysfunction. Public-private partnerships such as the one Mr. Hogan is pushing — and those that have been used to expand Northern Virginia’s highway network — are plausible ways to get big things done without the political heavy-lift of raising taxes.

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Editorials represent the views of The Washington Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

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