Marylanders tired of being stuck in Capital Beltway traffic recently received good news from the Hogan Administration.
The state Department of Transportation is moving forward with the next steps toward adding two high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes along the Capital Beltway across the American Legion Bridge to I-270. The Department has adopted a formal recommendation for this preferred alternative. Existing travel lanes throughout the corridor would be retained and remain free. Only those drivers of single-occupancy vehicles who chose to use newly constructed express lanes would face any extra charges[i].
Marylanders spend more time commuting to work than the residents of every other state, apart from New York. The time spent stuck in I-270 or Beltway traffic is maddeningly frustrating. Congestion results in less time spent with families and discourages workers from taking jobs requiring longer commutes.
“In addition to delivering significant congestion relief in the existing free lanes, this Recommended Preferred Alternative provides Marylanders with new travel options, including free use of the new managed lanes for carpoolers and transit riders, new bike and pedestrian connections in the community and across the Potomac to the C&O Canal, and a consistent, reliable transportation network for the entire National Capital Region from Maryland into Virginia,” said Transportation Secretary Gregory Slater.[ii]
Governor Larry Hogan had previously proposed adding these new Capital Beltway lanes as part of his $9 billion “Traffic Relief Plan.” The Hogan approach involves using private funds to finance the expansion through a “Public-Private Partnership (P3). The P3 uses private developers to design, build, finance, operate, and maintain the new express lanes.
The approach relies on tolls, and not more taxes, to pay for the improvements. However, these are entirely voluntary tolls, triggered only by express lane use. Drivers have an option to choose to pay for faster travel; essentially, when a driver’s personal “time is money” calculation warrants their doing so.
Yet, the Governor’s Traffic Relief Plan continues to face stiff opposition from the Pro- Gridlock, Public Transit Only advocates. They want multiple barriers erected in front of the plan. Among them are Montgomery County planning officials who again slammed the project: “We are extremely disappointed in the state’s ‘preferred alternative’ for adding lanes to these highways while offering nothing to reduce the need for more cars,” said Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission Chairman Elizabeth M. Hewlett.[iii]
Knee jerk complaints to the Hogan approach ignore the incentives that the revised plan offers carpooling and buses. Buses and vehicles with three or more people would be able to travel the new HOT lanes free of charge, providing opportunities for faster, more-reliable bus transit service, carpooling, and vanpooling.
Complaints that more money should be spent on public transportation ignore that nearly half of Maryland’s transportation spending already goes for public transit. Yet cars account for approximately 97 percent of all travel. Transportation planners long justified this imbalance to motorists by promising that travelers will be diverted away from the roads to transit. However, despite decades of public transit spending, the promised travel “diversion” has never materialized.
The state has modified its approach to numerous changes to the project to appease critics. Addressing a key chokepoint, the American Legion Bridge has been prioritized. The widening of I-495 between the I-270 and the Prince George’s County border has been deferred. This Beltway stretch presents design challenges, as it passes through a tight, curvy stretch of road with sound walls close to homes and buildings such as Montgomery Blair High School and Holy Cross Hospital.
In a recent interview, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich praised Slater for being flexible, commenting that, “It’s definitely improved.” [iv] While not an endorsement, given the deep ideological chasm that often divides transportation planning, that is almost high praise.