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Time to shelve massive I-270/I-495 expansion | COMMENTARY

Traffic backups such as this one on Monday, Dec. 2, 2019, are not unusual where the Capital Beltway meets the I-270 spur in either direction any time of day but proposed toll lanes project has run into considerable opposition. Washington Post photo by Katherine Frey
Traffic backups such as this one on Monday, Dec. 2, 2019, are not unusual where the Capital Beltway meets the I-270 spur in either direction any time of day but proposed toll lanes project has run into considerable opposition. Washington Post photo by Katherine Frey (The Washington Post)

Here’s a tale of two subdivisions as unlikely as anything Charles Dickens might devise. One economically challenged Maryland city begging for transportation investment has a beloved and potentially life-changing transit project nixed by the governor. The other community, among the most prosperous in the nation, vigorously opposes a controversial highway expansion plan to add costly toll lanes to its two major thoroughfares, but the governor appears undeterred. Add to the mix a pandemic that should be discouraging major highway investment of all types right now and you have the stranger-than-fiction standoff that continues to play out over Gov. Larry Hogan’s $11 billion plan to widen Interstate 270 and the Capital Beltway.

From the start, the Hogan administration has treated this project as the holy grail, not just because it pleases a certain segment of the business community frustrated with traffic congestion around suburban Washington, D.C., but because it’s a public-private partnership, or P3, meaning private investors would cover the bulk of the costs and then be rewarded by toll revenue. Building public infrastructure without floating public bonds or raising taxes has its political appeal and certainly, there are examples of P3 successes. The development of the Seagirt Marine Terminal a decade ago, for example, under a deal made with Ports America Chesapeake LLC proved beneficial for all involved.

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But there are also examples of P3 failures, and one of the most obvious is right under the collective noses of everyone involved in the highway plan. The Purple Line, the $5.6 billion, 16.2-mile-long, east-west light rail system connecting New Carrollton to Bethesda is essentially abandoned mid-construction right now over cost disputes between the state and the contractor. At the heart of the problem are rising construction costs that could cause the project to become unprofitable, a concern that wouldn’t deter a traditional public infrastructure project but has halted the Purple Line in its tracks. If negotiations prove unsuccessful, a protracted court battle is entirely possible while the abandoned rail line sits and sits and sits.

Recently, the public comment period for the federally mandated Environmental Impact Statement for the I-270/I-495 project closed, and the results were predictable. Some business groups love it, some pro-transit environmental groups hate it. But here’s the voice that really ought to be heard above all others: the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, the land use planning agency for Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. They aren’t just against it, the 10 commissioners are unanimously against it. They don’t think alternative ways of relieving traffic have been considered, the harmful impact fully assessed nor even the potentially hidden costs should the enormous undertaking move forward.

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Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich has been a particularly strong opponent. And why not? His constituents could end up paying tolls as large as $50 one-way to access the new lanes. Will they relieve traffic for the non-rich? Maybe not. If regular I-495 and I-270 traffic moves along at a healthy clip, what incentive is there for anyone to use the so-called “Lexus Lanes?” Or for traffic planners to pursue no-build strategies to reduce congestion like encouraging more commuters to use the decidedly uncrowded (but nearby) Intercounty Connector?

Making it all so much more ridiculous is that these same highways have already seen substantially reduced congestion because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic won’t last forever, of course, but changes in work patterns may. How many jobs that required in-person attendance will now be judged as better served by stay-at-home employees? Video conferences are here to stay. So are laptop computers and an increasingly tech-driven workforce. Even employers who want their workers to return to the office may offer greater flexibility than in the past (work-at-home Mondays and Fridays, or flexible hours, perhaps). The worst of the traffic jams may go away before the first shovel hits the dirt.

Meanwhile, it’s difficult to watch this exercise from the Baltimore region without being disgusted by the inequity. The $2.9 billion Red Line connecting Woodlawn to Johns Hopkins Bayview was killed five years ago when it had much broader political support from the region and cash in hand (including a $900-million federal commitment), at a time when the city was struggling for jobs post-Freddie Gray. Throw in the Hogan administration’s near-simultaneous abandonment of Baltimore’s long-promised P3, the $1.5 billion State Center redevelopment, and the pattern is clear: The state’s richest county gets billions it doesn’t want, while the city with the greatest concentration of poverty in Maryland (by far) gets passed over. This may not be London and Paris before the French Revolution but the social injustice seems real enough.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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