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Downsizing Capital Beltway project good — scrapping it better | COMMENTARY

Traffic flows along interchanges that link the Capital Beltway and I-270. (Washington Post photo by Katherine Frey.)
Traffic flows along interchanges that link the Capital Beltway and I-270. (Washington Post photo by Katherine Frey.) (Katherine Frey)

Gov. Larry Hogan’s top transportation priority, a proposal to widen sections of I-270, I-495 and the Capital Beltway in Montgomery County, embodies a fundamentally antiquated and misguided approach to infrastructure investment. This unnecessary highway expansion will leave behind harmful public health and environmental repercussions long after Mr. Hogan vacates his post in 2023.

Amid fierce opposition from environmental activists; local planning officials and Rep. Anthony Brown, a Maryland Democrat and member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, the governor’s proposal has begun to crumble.

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Earlier this month, the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) decided to significantly reduce the scope of the governor’s project, so that it no longer widens the Capital Beltway east of I-270, which many considered the most controversial segment of the plan.

The project’s main focus now only includes replacing and expanding the American Legion Bridge as well as adding multiple toll lanes to the lower part of I-270. This dramatic downsizing of the project is a huge victory for residents’ quality of life, now and in the future, but it’s time to completely scrap the entire expansion project.

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Fixing aging bridges makes sense, but not as an excuse for expanding them. Given that MDOT has already determined adding lanes to the majority of the highways outlined in this project is no longer worth studying, why add any more lanes at all?

Gov. Hogan is still seeking key approvals for what remains of this wasteful highway boondoggle from the Maryland Board of Public Works later this summer. The ultimate decision to move the project forward will likely come down to the board’s swing vote: Comptroller Peter Franchot, who is running to replace Mr. Hogan in 2022.

Even scaled back, the governor’s proposal, which still lacks a final environmental impact statement and reliable toll revenue projections, won’t work because wider roads will mean more drivers, not less.

Instead of fixing the current gridlock problem, adding toll lanes to I-270 and the American Legion Bridge will still trap more Marylanders in their cars, increasing the amount of deadly air pollution and fostering greater inequity long after we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.

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This is because expanding a highway sets off a chain reaction of societal decisions — often referred to as “induced demand” — that ultimately lead to the highway becoming congested again in only a short time.

Beyond negative health and environmental impacts on the local level, this project, even if reduced, will also harm our planet for decades to come. Transportation is now Maryland’s number one source of greenhouse gas emissions and the single largest contributor to the global climate crisis.

Maryland is among the states most vulnerable to climate change, as rising sea levels along with increased storm intensity will continue to have devastating and far-reaching environmental and economic impacts on the Chesapeake Bay and the quality of life Marylanders enjoy.

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Maryland needs to take a fresh approach to transportation spending. The COVID-19 pandemic has provided us with an opportunity to rethink the way we get around. At the same time, new political winds in Washington are setting a fresh course with major changes to our country’s historically car-centric transportation system, as the federal government has stepped in twice over the past several months to put the brakes on major highway expansions in Houston and Milwaukee.

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In Baltimore and towns across the state, highways have caused lasting damage to communities. Reducing this project’s scope won’t solve the larger problem. We don’t need more highway lanes. We need more electrified public transit, biking and walking.

Gov. Hogan was responsible for stopping the construction of the Red Line light rail project, which was supported by community groups and environmentalists. As a post-pandemic world begins to appear on the horizon, we can’t let him push us further toward an auto-dependent transportation system that we know doesn’t work.

John Stout (jstout@pirg.org) is a transportation advocate with U.S. PIRG.

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