Alan Pisarski, a former chief of data collection and analysis at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ Transportation Planning Board, is the author of the continuing series “Commuting in America.” Peter Samuel ran Toll Roads News from 1996 to 2013.
The Intercounty Connector gets disparaged for being “empty,” often by people who object to building any road and want only new rail lines. In fact, the “empty” ICC is carrying more passengers per day than Metro’s Silver Line, which was built at many times the cost of the ICC and needs ongoing subsidies to cover its operational losses.
The ICC could comfortably carry more traffic. An expressway such as the ICC, when it starts to reach capacity, has two to three times the capacity of the ICC’s present volume of 40,000 vehicles per day.
Maryland Gov.-elect Larry Hogan (R) campaigned against proposed costly light-rail lines that would engender long-term subsidies that Maryland can’t afford. Now he has a mandate for promoting cost-effective, self-financing projects: toll lanes and toll roads. One of his early initiatives should be to improve mobility without burdening taxpayers.
David Versel of George Mason University has highlighted the need for improved connections between Montgomery and Fairfax counties. Versel points out that the western portion of the Capital Beltway, centered on the American Legion Memorial Bridge, is one of the most congested and unreliable corridors in the country. The average daily number of cars on the bridge — 225,000 — is well over capacity. That congestion costs $95 million a year.
Studies by the Maryland and Virginia departments of transportation in 2009 found that widening the western Beltway, including the Legion Bridge, to 12 lanes would only partially solve the congestion problems and could cost up to $2.65 billion.
Versel is right: “It is clear that the two states and two counties will not be able to meet their future connectivity needs simply by continuing to squeeze capacity out of the American Legion Memorial Bridge and the highways and roads that feed it.” Not to have alternative crossings is dangerous.
A westward extension of the ICC in Gaithersburg to a Potomac River crossing just upstream of the McKee-Beshers Wildlife Management Area would be a simple-to-engineer, 15-mile link. It could take a substantial proportion of Fairfax-Loudoun/Montgomery-Frederick traffic off the Beltway and the Legion Bridge. It would provide a great route for Fairfax residents to get to the Interstate 270 corridor and, via the existing ICC, to BWI, Baltimore and points north. The western extension would provide a quality route for Montgomery/Frederick travelers to Dulles Airport and a back way to Reston, Herndon and Tysons Corner.
There’s also a case, although not as compelling, that the ICC should be extended into Prince George’s County to Route 50 in Bowie.
The two extensions would make the ICC a true intercounty connector, linking Fairfax, Loudoun, Montgomery and Prince George’s and improving access to Annapolis and the Eastern Shore.
With managed pricing, the extended ICC could provide fast, reliable bus transit service across the northern portion of the area. An ICC transit route could have easy connections to Metro at Dulles Airport (when the second stage of the Silver Line is completed) and Shady Grove. With dedicated connecting bus lanes added to local roads, it could link to the ends of Metro lines at Glenmont (Red Line), Greenbelt (Green), New Carrollton (Orange) and Largo Town Center (Blue).
Of course there will be strong opposition to such ICC extensions. But there was strong opposition to building the first stage. Those concerns were addressed successfully. It took more than 40 years for the ICC to be realized. Considering all the benefits forgone over that period, maybe we can be more timely with an extension. Rock Creek and the other intersected waterways that the opponents said would be ruined are doing just fine. Properly designed, the ICC can be extended over the Potomac with similar benign environmental effects.
The benefits of the present ICC are clear to the tens of thousands of people who pay tolls and use it each day. Plus, Beltway traffic in the sections parallel to the ICC is down 8 percent. Benefits of the western extension would be larger still.
The area needs to focus on truly regional transportation investments that tie together the almost 9.5 million people in the Washington-Baltimore region.