Montgomery County developer Robert Eisinger says he has found a fast, reliable and cost-effective way to ease traffic on Interstate 270: Get tens of thousands of motorists traveling from the outer suburbs to switch to a monorail between Frederick and the Shady Grove Metro station.
Eisinger said he knows the word monorail conjures images of amusement park rides more suitable for ferrying passengers around Disney World than carrying commuters through the suburbs of the nation's capital.
But he said a consultant's study, paid for by him and private contributors, found that a 27-mile monorail would be environmentally friendly and cost $3.4 billion — significantly less per mile than building a light-rail line or extending Metro's Red Line. Most importantly, he said, a monorail would fit within the I-270 right of way, leaving homes and backyards untouched and sparing the state the potentially hefty expense of acquiring private property.
He envisions trains zooming above highway traffic, making the trip between Frederick and Shady Grove in 31 minutes via six stations and someday extending south to Bethesda and across the Potomac River into Northern Virginia. He does not have a plan for how to pay for the project, but said that it probably would entail a public-private partnership.
"Someone has to do it first," Eisinger said recently from a conference room at the Rockville offices of his real estate company, Promark Partners. "We're looking for a way to get it done."
The proposal has begun to attract attention, especially among Montgomery leaders who want more mass transit options included in Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan's (R) plan to ease congestion by building express toll lanes on I-270 and the state's portion of the Capital Beltway.
Del. Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery), chairman of the House Environment and Transportation Committee, said the potential for no right of way costs or impact is "very attractive." He has ridden the monorail in Seattle and was so impressed with Eisinger's pitch that he plans to hold a public hearing on it before next year's legislative session.
"For some reason, transportation planners don't seem to like monorail," said Barve, who represents Rockville and Gaithersburg. "They roll their eyeballs like it's some kind of goofy proposition. But from the cost and right of way point of view, I don't understand why it's not something we're looking at."
Gaithersburg Mayor Jud Ashman (D), who supports Hogan's toll-lane plan, said a monorail warrants more in-depth state analysis. He wants to know if it would attract enough riders for fare revenue to cover the long-term operating and maintenance costs, as Eisinger said his consultants found.
"That's something you don't see with transit projects," Ashman said. "It would be a unicorn if that's the case, and I hope it is . . . I think word of mouth is happening with this proposal. I think people are intrigued."
Eisinger's next audience is his most critical. He is scheduled to meet June 4 with Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn to ask that the state include a more detailed monorail analysis as part of its I-270 traffic-relief study.
The Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) declined to make anyone available for an interview about the monorail proposal. Instead, the agency emailed a statement from Rahn saying, "MDOT always is open to using the latest technology and innovation to fight congestion. The key for a [public-private partnership] is that all options must be able to pay for themselves, including the cost of construction, operations and maintenance."
MDOT recently rejected all transit options from the I-270 and Beltway toll-lanes study. Rahn said the state can't afford the government subsidies that transit lines generally require long-term to cover operating and maintenance costs.
Protests since then recently prompted MDOT to form a "transit work group" for regional transit officials to discuss how buses could use the toll lanes to provide faster, more reliable service.
"Residents and officials made clear they wanted us to consider more transit options," Maryland State Highway Administrator Greg Slater said in a statement issued Friday. "We heard you and are committed to having transit providers at the table as part of the dialogue."
The statement did not mention monorail.
The $87,000 study that Eisinger funded, done by Massachusetts-based Cambridge Systematics, found that a monorail would average about 30,000 trips daily if it opened in 2025. By 2045, the study found, it would average about 45,000 trips daily.
If rides were priced similarly to Metro, the line would bring in $50 million in annual fare revenue — more than enough to cover the projected annual operating and maintenance costs of $28.7 million, Eisinger said.
Steve Silverman, a former Montgomery council member and county economic development director who now lobbies for Promark and other companies, said monorail supporters "are not wading into" the debate about whether adding toll lanes is a good idea.
"This is not in competition with what the governor is proposing," said Silverman, who also serves on the board of the High Road Foundation, which advocates for the monorail proposal. "This is a completely separate issue. The focus is on getting people out of their cars north of the Montgomery County border."
Government officials are used to residents and business leaders proposing ways to solve the Washington region's notorious traffic gridlock, among the worst in the United States. A county-supported plan for a "Corridor Cities Transitway" busway to connect the Shady Grove Metro station with biotech job centers in the I-270 corridor died in 2016. The Hogan administration delayed the project's design funding, saying the state needed to save money after gas tax revenue came in short of projections.
Several people briefed on Eisinger's proposal said they were reminded of a memorable episode of "The Simpsons" TV show in which a huckster in a straw bowler gets residents at a town meeting to join him in singing about the joys of a fantastical monorail.
But initial chuckles aside, Eisinger's clout as a longtime developer — and his self-funded consultant studies — have won him sit-downs with lawmakers, mayors and business leaders. He said his company owns property across the Washington region but nothing that would benefit financially from a monorail station. As a Potomac resident and Montgomery native, he said, he simply believes monorail has been "overlooked" and "discounted" as a way to help the region out of its traffic mess.
"This doesn't make me any money," Eisinger said. "I've spent a ton of money on this."
Even as Eisinger points to examples of extensive monorail lines in other parts of the world, including Brazil and China, the technology has not won widespread support among U.S. transportation planners.
Most monorails in the United States carry travelers in short loops around amusement parks or between airport terminals. The most well-known systems are the privately funded lines linking Disney World resorts and Las Vegas casinos. Seattle also operates a one-mile monorail built for the 1962 World's Fair.
Transit experts say monorail hasn't caught on in the United States for several reasons. Its primary benefit is being elevated, which gives it a smaller footprint and saves the high costs of building bridges or tunnels to separate trains from cars.
But far fewer companies make and service equipment for the systems than for more traditional light-rail or heavy-rail subways, experts say, which would leave governments with few competitive options for service and parts long-term. They are also seen as less flexible because monorail trains require highly precise equipment to switch tracks.
"The idea does come up, but it hasn't gained traction," said Art Guzzetti, a vice president of the American Public Transportation Association.
Paul Lewis, a vice president for the nonpartisan Eno Center For Transportation, said monorail systems, particularly the stations, often are expensive to build. Moreover, he said, connecting monorail to Metro would require passengers to switch trains, which would reduce ridership by adding time and inconvenience to their trips.
By the time commuters drove to a monorail station, parked, rode the monorail and Metro, and then walked or took a bus to their final destination, he said, it might be far more convenient and even faster to drive, especially if they could use express toll lanes.
Lewis also suspects it would be "way more cost effective" to expand MARC commuter rail or bus service, particularly buses in the express toll lanes.
Transportation planners "consistently write off monorail not as a goofy idea for theme parks, but because I think it just doesn't stack up," Lewis said.
But Eisinger said a monorail would attract more motorists from the fast-growing outer suburbs, where many residents find more affordable housing. It also would carry more passengers than buses. He noted that CSX Transportation, a freight railroad that owns the tracks that MARC trains run on, has said it does not have enough track capacity for more commuter trains.
Eisinger said the projected construction cost of $3.4 billion breaks down to $127 million per mile — less than the $150 million per mile for the light-rail Purple Line and $251 million per mile for the Metro Silver Line extension in Northern Virginia.
Marilyn Balcombe, of the Gaithersburg-Germantown Chamber of Commerce, said Eisinger's monorail plan sounded like a "genius" way to provide better transit, in addition to expanding I-270 with toll lanes. While express buses could travel freely in the toll lanes, she said, many neighborhoods farther out were built around cul-de-sacs, leaving residents with long, indirect walks to major bus routes. A monorail, she said, would need to provide plenty of station parking.
"It's exciting," Balcombe said of the monorail proposal. "It's outside the box and looks like it might work."
Frederick Mayor Michael O'Connor (D) said he supports Hogan's plan to add toll lanes to I-270, as long as the state also expanded Route 15 to reduce the bottleneck where I-270 traffic enters and leaves the city.
"No one is saying build monorail tomorrow," O'Connor said. "But I think people are saying let's figure out what a rigorous analysis looks like ... I think it would be kind of foolish to not at least explore the idea with some seriousness."