Controversial Maryland toll lane project best kept on the shelf until 2023 | COMMENTARY

Traffic flows along interchanges that link the Interstate 495/Capital Beltway and Interstate 270. File. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post).

In government, there are at least two types of spending decisions to be made by elected leaders. The first are the short-term choices like hiring and firing, budgeting and meeting immediate needs, such as paying teacher salaries or putting enough police on the streets. These are annual, quarterly and sometimes even daily decisions. The second are the long-term capital investments that aren’t just about what’s happening now but committing to policies that may have consequences reaching decades into the future. No area of public policy better reflects the challenges of the latter than transportation spending, where the stakes can be enormously high and mistakes ruinous and long-lasting.

Such is the case with the proposal to add toll lanes to Interstate 495 (the Capital Beltway) and Interstate 270 that is expected to cost as much as $11 billion. Last Friday, Gov. Larry Hogan announced the project’s approval had been delayed by the Federal Highway Administration and called on U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to reverse the decision or face legal action. The proposal has been controversial from the start. While Governor Hogan has made it one of his highest priorities, it’s been strongly opposed by a variety of groups including the top elected leader in the subdivision most directly affected, Montgomery County.


Both sides recognize that the D.C. suburbs suffer from traffic congestion. But the split is over how best to improve that situation without causing further harm to the environment and putting the project in the hands of a public-private partnership (P3) that stands to profit from the toll revenue. Case in point: Tolls for the 12-mile stretch of what are sometimes derided as “Lexus Lanes” from the American Legion Bridge to Interstate 370 could total $18 or more under a rate plan already approved by the Maryland Transportation Authority. Trucks would pay far more — as much as $22 per mile in bad traffic.

And the high cost is only the start of it. Much of the planning reflects pre-COVID-19 pandemic thinking that assumes a continuing rise in commuting to work by car. Last month, opponents called on Secretary Buttigieg to delay federal funding while an independent review can be conducted. Their case was reinforced by claims of “anomalies” in the data collected for the project’s Final Environmental Impact Statement. The project’s advocates deny there are any problems and insist this criticism is just a delaying tactic by “anti-road activists.” For the record, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich isn’t calling for doing nothing, he simply thinks adding one reversible lane to the highways, to add capacity in the dominant direction of rush hour traffic, would be less destructive and more cost-effective.


But here is where highway skeptics have a trump card. The potential harm caused by a massive investment in pricey toll lanes that turn out to be destructive, unhelpful, underutilized or some combination of the three would last a half-century or more. Waiting until the next governor, state legislature and Montgomery County Council and executive (likely Mr. Elrich, again) take office to reach a consensus over what would be the best approach would delays things by less than a half-year. And the cost? Theoretically, there might be an inflation factor for construction material purchased later, but the project might also prove cheaper if it’s scaled back.

That’s not to suggest that every long-term infrastructure project should be held off until the last possible decision-making moment. Of course not. But when the proposal is as big and controversial as the Capital Beltway/I-270 project, the implications as profound, and new leadership only a matter of months from taking office, some caution ought to be exercised. Better for the Biden administration to support the next governor (who is likely to be a Democrat, incidentally, a point even Governor Hogan acknowledges) and do exactly what has been asked — give the matter a closer review.

One more point. Potential changes in commuting patterns aren’t the only new circumstances. There’s also the matter of climate change and the growing need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector. A problem that seemed worrisome five years ago looks far more like a full-out crisis today. Maryland can’t keep expanding highway capacity to relieve congestion. We need more forward-thinking policies that not only invest more in public transportation but in more “smart growth” land use practices that encourage people to live near their places of work (or work from home). Toll lanes are a 20th century solution that make less sense applied to a 21st century problem.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.