High-price Highway

Business, Environmental Concerns Set To Clash Over A Proposed $4.6 Billion Widening Of I-270

July 26, 2009|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,michael.dresser@baltsun.com

The same forces that contended in the decades-long struggle over the Inter-County Connector have drawn new battle lines over a $4.6 billion proposal to widen Interstate 270 in Montgomery and Frederick counties - potentially the most expensive transportation project in Maryland history.

The proposal to add four express toll lanes to the heavily congested highway - at a cost almost twice that of the $2.6 billion ICC - is drawing the support of Montgomery County business leaders and fierce opposition from environmental groups.

Meanwhile, the enormous price - about triple the cost of Baltimore's proposed east-west light rail line - is likely to raise concerns in the Baltimore metropolitan area, which is struggling to meet its own transportation needs. While Montgomery County's planning board recently endorsed one of the most expensive options in a study of the I-270 corridor, costs for the city's Red Line are being pared; planners are even considering running trains both ways on a single track through a mile-long tunnel.

FOR THE RECORD - An article Sunday incorrectly attributed statements by a State Highway Administration official about a proposed widening of Interstate 270. The individual speaking for the SHA was Greg Slater, director of planning and preliminary engineering.
The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

The ICC was approved with little opposition from Baltimore because of hopes it could improve connections between the state's two biggest population centers, but widening I-270 would have little traffic impact on the city or its suburbs. The price tag will "absolutely" raise concerns among Baltimore-area legislators, said Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a member of the House Environmental Matters Committee.

"Unless I'm missing something, I don't see how it would not drain from other areas of the state," said the Howard County Democrat, who argues that the state needs to make "a real commitment to transit" and not just wider highways.

I-270 runs from the Capital Beltway to Frederick County, which in recent decades has been steadily pulled into Washington's orbit.

Affordable real estate - at least compared with close-in suburbs - and less-than-stringent planning have brought explosive growth to northern Montgomery County and parts of Frederick County. The result: grinding congestion on I-270, arguably the most clogged traffic corridor in Maryland.

Lisa Fadden, a spokeswoman for the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, says the highway widening would help the entire state by fostering growth and tax revenue in the high-tech corridor.

"The bottom line ... is that people in Baltimore and around the state will benefit from a vibrant Montgomery County," she said. Without a wider I-270, "the state will lose revenue as a result of companies not wanting to locate in a congested corridor."

The Montgomery chamber was one of the driving forces behind the successful effort to win approval for the ICC, now under construction between I-270 and the Interstate 95-U.S. 1 corridor.

Among the leading foes of the ICC - who held off the road for decades and almost succeeded in killing it - were such groups as the Sierra Club, the Coalition for Smarter Growth, the Audubon Naturalist Society of Maryland and 1000 Friends of Maryland.

The same groups are now rallying to oppose the I-270 widening, contending that it represents a discredited 20th-century notion that congestion can be cured by building ever-wider roads. They say it will encourage rampant sprawl in Mongtomery and Frederick County - and as far west as Hagerstown - that will quickly chew up whatever new road capacity is created.

"You're just heading down a path that is not affordable," said Ben Ross, president of the Action Committee for Transit. "We need to cut back on burning oil both for national security and global warming. We shouldn't be spending $4 billion just to encourage more people to drive."

Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, said she was "stunned" to hear the proposal because she thought the state had learned its lesson about road projects.

"We see two things when you widen a highway: One is that it fills up fast, and the other is that people will live farther away. It promotes sprawl. It happens every time," she said.

The environmental groups are urging a greater emphasis on transit in the corridor, including expanded MARC service to downtown Frederick or Hagerstown and a possible extension of the Washington Metro's Red Line to the Germantown area.

A transit line called the Corridor Cities Transitway is part of the same study that is considering the road-widening proposal. Construction costs of the transit project are estimated at $450 million for rapid bus service and $778 million for light rail - about 10 percent to 15 percent of the amount proponents of the highway project are seeking.

But the Montgomery chamber's Fadden said the investment in highway widening is necessary because "not everybody is going to use transit." Some people, she said, have to drive in order "to pick up their kids at day car and pick up their dry cleaning."

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