Lose The Lanes

Our View: State Should Relieve I-270 Congestion With More Mass Transit Options

July 28, 2009

No one can dispute that traffic in Montgomery County is bad, and in particular that Interstate 270 on many afternoons looks like the state's longest parking lot. The State Highway Administration rates the southbound lanes as failing - meaning, traffic is stop-and-go - during the morning rush hour and the northbound lanes as failing during the afternoon rush hour. And the situation is only projected to get worse, with 20 percent more cars expected to be traveling on the main connector between the Washington Beltway and Frederick in the next 20 years.

But the plan being pushed by some business and political leaders in Montgomery County of adding express toll lanes to the road is the wrong idea. Not only would it be hugely expensive - potentially as much as $4.6 billion - but it would also run counter to virtually all of Maryland's goals for environmental protection, community preservation and planned growth.

Imagine the state's transportation agency could wave a wand and the new toll lanes would appear tomorrow. For a time, commuters along that corridor would fly to work in the morning and home at night. People who had previously found ways to avoid I-270 would suddenly find it an attractive route. People who had taken mass transit might decide that driving to work suddenly made sense. People buying new houses might conclude that they could now safely live farther from their offices. It's a pattern traffic engineers have been wrestling with for years: Increased capacity doesn't make life easier for a road's existing users - it makes more people use the road.

That's not to say that more lanes or new highways are always pointless. The widening of I-95 north of Baltimore makes more sense in that it is both a commuter corridor and the major transportation artery of the East Coast. Even the Intercounty Connector, for all its faults, will at least join two points on the map that weren't connected before. But I-270 serves little purpose other than turning Frederick into a bedroom community of Washington, a trend that eats up farmland and puts more pollution into the air and water.

Montgomery business boosters say that a congested I-270 threatens to wreck Maryland's economic engine if companies stop locating there. But the reason companies come to the I-270 corridor now surely isn't the easy transportation. It's because of the critical mass of other high-tech companies, skilled workers and government offices, and that's not likely to change soon.

Fortunately, despite the recommendation of Montgomery County's planning board and support on the County Council, it is almost inconceivable that the state will decide to widen the entire length of I-270. In fact, the option to reduce congestion that's most likely to move forward soon is some expansion of mass transit, either a $450 million rapid bus service or a $778 million light rail project. Mass transit won't solve all of the congestion problems on that corridor either, but at least it would add capacity in a more environmentally friendly way.

When the state settles this fall on its preferred plans for ways to improve transportation along the I-270 corridor, it should remember that the effects of its decisions will be dwarfed by the individual choices of hundreds of thousands of people trying to get to work and back every day. But at least it can give them options that help create sustainable communities.

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