My visit to this perch was motivated by the June 5 Maryland Board of Public Works 2-to-1 decision to further the public-private partnership process while prioritizing I-270.
There is too much sprawl in the region for transit alone to solve the commuting crisis. But Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s (R) solution encourages more sprawl. I wonder how much farmland will be developed north of here. I wonder how much time 16 lanes will buy us. Perhaps 15 years? Then do we go to 20 lanes?
The mess is decades in the making. I have lost elections fighting for smart growth around Metro stations. Some of our elected leaders who complain the most about I-270 widening have made political careers fighting smart growth that benefits from density; they have called it “dumb growth.” Then there were decades of raiding the so-called Highway Trust Fund until it was locked down.
Where there is population growth, you can grow up (density), grow out (sprawl) or encroach on existing neighborhoods. If done properly, dense growth around transit can have many positive outcomes. In the I-270 expansion, I see sprawl and encroachment, with mostly negative impacts.
For Rockville, I-270 encroachment will be caused partially by some taking of land, but much more so by the knock-on impacts on our nearby streets. The spot where I stood on Gude Drive bridge will become an access point for the toll lanes (currently Gude Drive does not connect to I-270). This will increase traffic on an already busy street and result in queuing of cars waiting to access the highway. I see further effects on other nearby streets such as Research Boulevard, Nelson Street and Watts Branch Parkway.
The loss of local lanes will make north/south travel in Rockville more difficult. There might be more noise and air pollution. And I wonder how much of our budget will go to mitigation. Then there is the burden of years of construction and lower property values near the highway. It’s not just about whether a house is taken or a backyard is shortened.
To break this cycle of sprawl-congestion, sprawl-congestion, we are going to need a new attitude about land use and finally find the resources to build schools and transit. Shortfalls in infrastructure funding can result in development moratoriums. This is where we take a shortage of classroom space and create a shortage of housing. Prices go through the roof, and people (including our children, teachers, police and firefighters) head north to live. Then they support a widening of I-270. I call this the boomerang effect.
This year, Rockville finally embraced a transit-oriented development near the Twinbrook Metro called Twinbrook Quarter. But it was a rough fight, and the project nearly failed on the issue of school crowding, even though it will pay for more school capacity than students it will generate. I don’t blame parents for being angry about schools bursting at the seams. They’re paying high property tax rates, and their children deserve better. But their children are going to grow up, and they should be able to live and work in Rockville as young adults if they so choose.