The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion As Virginia finds consensus on expanding highways, Marylanders are at each other’s throats

A jumble of roads and signs defines the I-495 Beltway looking north from Tyson’s.
A jumble of roads and signs defines the I-495 Beltway looking north from Tyson’s. (Dayna Smith/For The Washington Post)
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VIRGINIA IS forging ahead to complete an ambitious express lane network in the Washington suburbs that holds the promise of ensuring that highway capacity will keep pace with population growth. The project — dozens of miles of high-occupancy toll lanes developed and financed by a private consortium in partnership with the state — faces undeniable risks, not least the uncertainty of post-pandemic commuting patterns.

But perhaps the biggest question mark hanging over the ultimate success of Virginia’s multibillion-dollar venture is its neighbor, Maryland.

The two states have agreed to replace and improve the American Legion Bridge, which links Interstate 495, the Beltway, over the Potomac River. The bridge, nearly 60 years old, is projected to carry 280,000 vehicles daily by 2040, about 20 percent more than 2019’s level.

On its side of the bridge, Virginia is moving toward adding a final, three-mile segment of toll roads that would end at the Potomac, in addition to improved general purpose lanes; construction is scheduled for completion is 2024. On its side, Maryland’s planning is mired in controversy.

Gov. Larry Hogan has proposed a public-private partnership that, in its initial stage, would roughly mirror Virginia’s network by adding toll lanes to the Beltway near the bridge, and up Interstate 270 to Frederick. To build and operate the project, the state has preliminarily chosen the Australian toll operator Transurban, which also controls the Beltway toll lane project in Virginia. In return for financing and building the projects, the company and its partners would get most of the toll revenue for decades.

The governor’s plan makes sense, and the decision to choose Transurban, if finalized, would ensure a seamless connection between the states. Yet unlike Virginia, where there is broad consensus for expanding highway capacity, along with better transit options, Marylanders are at each other’s throats over the project.

The usual objections to high-occupancy toll roads are weak arguments. Yes, in rush hour the toll lanes would be pricey, but no one would be forced to use them, and the existing lanes would be rebuilt and remain free of charge. Yes, the highway expansion would not “solve” traffic, but without it, congestion will go from bad to unbearable.

Local politicians in the Maryland suburbs, all Democrats, have raised every objection possible to impede the efforts of Mr. Hogan, a Republican. They’ve cited problems with public-private partnerships elsewhere, including the Purple Line light-rail project, in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, which required a $250 million state bailout after delays threatened to undo the deal. It’s worth remembering that the most significant of those delays was caused by a meritless environmental lawsuit that was thrown out of court — but only after it set back the project by months.

The opponents, some of whom oppose all major road construction, hope to ensnare the project in endless controversy. Many would prefer that the state devote all its transportation resources and energies to mass transit. In fact, the region’s long-term economic health and livability will require both. And while private-public partnerships do carry some risk, they also expand the political viability of expensive projects by avoiding tax increases. The region’s hundreds of thousands of commuters understand that. Local officials should heed them.

Read more:

Read letters in response to this piece: Not so fast on dismissing concerns about Maryland’s Beltway expansion

The Post’s View: Maryland needs expanded roads. Hogan’s plan is the best way forward.

Parris N. Glendening: Maryland should study the climate effects of highway expansion before committing to it

Letters to the Editor: Mr. Hogan’s wrong approach to more highways

John Stout: Rushing Beltway construction won’t solve Maryland’s congestion problem