The big picture on roads

The photo-op moment in Clarksville on Aug. 31 with the governor and county executive celebrating the start of work on a long overdue widening of Route 32 was obscured days later by the announcement of a $9 billion plan to expand three major thoroughfares in the Washington suburbs.

Gov. Larry Hogan’s idea to form public-private partnerships to build and operate toll lanes on Interstate 270, the Capital Beltway and Baltimore-Washington Parkway provided a jolt to intransigent regional thinking on ways to alleviate traffic problems. Details of how this partnership will work were sparse, prompting a number of policy questions, and the governor’s critics were quick to pounce on his preference for asphalt. Predictably the debate over pay-to-use “Lexus Lanes” was rekindled.

While it can be argued that what’s good for traffic-snarled Montgomery and Prince George’s counties is good for the state, the toll-lanes plan will bring only tangential benefits to Howard County commuters. The $9 billion vision does little to take into account other ways to relieve congestion, including improved bus and rail service or technology that can move traffic more efficiently (not to mention allowing easier telework from home).

For most of this century, Howard has been the fastest growing county in Maryland and spending on transportation projects has been relatively paltry. Just three big projects – sound barrier walls along Interstate 95, widening Route 29 and the multiphase Route 32 project to add lanes – are underway. A sorely needed plan to modulate rush-hour gridlock on Interstate 70 between routes 29 and 32 is essentially shelved, for now.

The governor’s toll plan deserves consideration, and should not be summarily rejected by his political foes. At the same time, it shouldn’t outmuscle smaller projects like the Route 32 project, the expansion of the regional bus network serving central Maryland or increasing schedules on the MARC commuter rail lines. These shorter-term, practical projects will bring relief in Howard and still others will have to be on the drawing boards as the population grows.

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