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Hogan's beltway plan: Where we're going, do we need roads?

The wisdom of Gov. Larry Hogan’s pledge to spend $461 million to relieve congestion in the Baltimore region depends on how you look at it.

Compared to the $9 billion proposal he announced to relieve gridlock in the Washington region by widening the Capital Beltway and adding lanes to I-95 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, this latest idea is both cheap (about one-twentieth of the cost) and simple. Mr. Hogan is proposing to pay for it through conventional means, so it doesn’t raise the same concerns as the public-private partnerships he’s championing around D.C. And the complications and cost he’ll face in securing the right-of-way, particularly in Montgomery County, don’t exist for the Baltimore project.

Taken on its own terms, there is much about it that makes sense. The biggest part of the proposal is a $205 million plan to extend express toll lanes on I-95 north as far as Bel Air. The express toll lanes that exist in that area now represent just the first of what was planned to be four phases, and the section Mr. Hogan is proposing to complete is the next logical step. It would probably boost use of the toll lanes generally in that area. A second major feature of the governor’s plan is a $100 million redesign of the troubled I-695/I-70 interchange, which is long overdue. That interchange has been beyond its capacity for years, and it wasn’t designed well in the first place. It tends to confuse drivers who have trouble figuring out what lane they need to be in, which helps create routine backups there. A third element involves adding capacity the top side of the beltway between Parkville and I-70 by converting the inside shoulders to traffic lanes. There are down sides to that approach from a safety point of view — it will make it more difficult for emergency vehicles to get to and clear traffic accidents, for example. The proposal also does nothing for the rest of the beltway, which features a variety of other bottlenecks. But it is doable.

That said, the fact that this proposal is less complicated than the unprecedented (for Maryland, anyway) public-private partnerships Mr. Hogan pledged for the Washington region doesn’t make it uncomplicated. Mr. Hogan left out a discussion of the trade-offs these new projects might portend. How much will tolls have to go up to support the new express lanes on I-95? What would the new beltway lanes and I-70 interchange mean for Maryland’s capital debt affordability? What projects might have to fall off the priority list to fund these? How long will these projects take, and how disruptive will they be in the meantime? Mr. Hogan promises the new beltway lanes will cut 15 minutes off rush hour commutes. How much extra time will motorists spend in traffic to get that benefit?

The broad view of these proposals raises more questions. Baltimoreans can’t help but see this idea in the context of Governor Hogan’s decision to kill the long-planned $2.1 billion Red Line light rail project in the city, one that would have sparked economic development along an east-west axis through prosperous and troubled neighborhoods alike, and one that would have increased the ability of thousands of people to access good jobs. His substitute, the BaltimoreLink bus overhaul, has not produced anything close to the benefits the Red Line would have, and this proposal is not really geared toward the city at all but rather aimed at suburban commuters and travelers seeking to avoid Baltimore altogether.

This proposal further tilts an already roads-heavy Hogan administration transportation budget even farther away from transit. Yes, Mr. Hogan is moving forward with the Washington-area Purple Line light rail, but his spending is otherwise pouring almost entirely into concrete. That’s problematic on a number of levels but particularly because experience shows the benefits of adding lanes are short lived. This is hardly the first time a governor has sought to relieve traffic congestion by adding lanes to the beltway, and the result is by now predictable: more lanes attract more cars and send us right back to where we started.

And one more thing: Is the 1950s approach of building more lanes really the right solution for 2017 and beyond? It’s incongruous to say the least for the Hogan administration to be cheerleading Elon Musk’s hyperloop proposal for a lightning-speed underground connection between Washington and Baltimore without also considering the more imminent change in transportation patterns his better known venture, Tesla, represents. Connected and semi-autonomous if not fully driverless cars aren’t far on the horizon. That would not only change the calculus for our existing highway capacity but could also usher in profound changes in where and how we live. Are we taking that into account?

The problem here is not so much the specific proposal Governor Hogan has put before us. It presents costs and trade-offs but also encompasses some things that need to be done. Rather, the question is one of vision. Is Mr. Hogan leading us into the future or just repeating the failed strategies of the past?

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