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Capital Beltway/I-270 expansion the responsible choice | READER COMMENTARY

Traffic crawls along the Capital Beltway during rush hour on Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2015. Maryland is expected to soon move forward with efforts to add toll lanes to a portion of the beltway along with the American Legion Bridge and I-270. (Jose Luis Magana/PilotOnline.com).
Traffic crawls along the Capital Beltway during rush hour on Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2015. Maryland is expected to soon move forward with efforts to add toll lanes to a portion of the beltway along with the American Legion Bridge and I-270. (Jose Luis Magana/PilotOnline.com). (Jose Luis Magana)

Critics of the plan to replace the 60-year-old American Legion Bridge and add express lanes to segments of the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270 have it exactly backward. Rather than being an “antiquated and misguided approach” (”Downsizing Capital Beltway project good — scrapping it better,” May 26), the improvements are a forward-looking solution to the existing traffic congestion that saps our quality of life today. Unless the project is built as currently envisioned, travel conditions will be even be worse in the future.

Any traveler of the segments scheduled for improvement knows firsthand the intolerable delays experienced every morning and evening. In fact, this corridor has been identified as one of the most congested in the United States. Imagine what it will be like 25 years from now when our approved regional forecast estimates a population growth of 1.2 million people and 913,000 jobs. It is estimated that the traffic volume at the American Legion Bridge will increase by an additional 34,000 vehicles per day. Instead of six hours of congestion in the corridor, we will be experiencing at least twice as many hours of gridlock by 2045. Current drivers will refer to our existing congestion levels as “the good old days of travel.”

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Critics are disingenuous when they use arguments that are themselves outdated because they pertain to segments that are no longer a part of the downsized project. Issues of environmental justice, impacts to local parks and property takings are simply not valid with the revised project. The proposed additional capacity will be managed within the existing right-of-way with 21st century technology that ensures free-flowing travel, not only to toll payers but also to transit riders, to carpoolers and users of the existing free lanes, who will enjoy faster and more reliable trips free of charge.

The implication that the project will turn transit users into toll-paying drivers is completely upside down. The project will deliver very significant time savings to transit riders and carpoolers with a toll rate of zero. Therefore, the express lanes will make riding commuter buses or sharing a ride with others in a personal vehicle much more attractive and thus will provide the basis for adding more transit service in the corridor. Furthermore, the selected developer will make improvements to existing transit centers in Montgomery County and will provide $300 million in transit improvements at no cost to the state and county.

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The opponents make reference to “induced demand” as one of the problems with the project. Induced demand as it applies to this project will be either nonexistent or considerably overstated by project opponents: Widening roads in and of itself does not generate additional traffic, just like building schools and hospitals do not generate students or patients. Facilities such as these just accommodate additional growth and demand for those services. Some travelers choose to make trips during off-peak hours to avoid the existing levels of congestion. The additional capacity will give them choices to make the trips during more convenient hours. So, what appears to be “induced demand” is simply a shift of the time when the trips are made. If the transportation models used only look at peak-period travel it would appear that the widening is producing more trips when, in fact, the same number of daily trips are being made. It is just that some of them will be made at a much more convenient hour.

Finally, the very literature on induced demand the opponents refer to in their piece discusses how the concept of induced demand may not apply to the provision of additional toll roads. You just need to read the entire article, not only the title. In short, the concept of induced demand, as applied to the public-private partnership or P3 project does not meet the conditions that proponents of the concept advocate. Instead, the project will “induce” greater transit use and a vast improvement in travel time for all users.

The opponents of the project state that increased air pollution will result because of additional traffic. They ignore the fact that several of the pollutants affecting the environment are sensitive to travel speeds. For example, carbon emissions per mile can be more than 50% higher at the expected travel speed of 15 miles per hour if the project is not built, versus the 42 mph expected to occur under the selected alternative in 2045.

Critics of the project make reference to the possible effects of COVID-19 on traffic demand, but fail to recognize that traffic volumes on the segments of I-495 and I-270 proposed for expansion have already reached levels of 90% and more of the pre-pandemic demand and are expected to continuously increase. In contrast, ridership on our Metro system is at about 15% of the pre-pandemic use. Transit has to be a part of a comprehensive and balanced solution to our transportation challenges, but the fact that more than 85% of total travel in the region occurs on roads cannot be ignored and improvements to our road system must be also a part of a balanced solution.

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Gov. Larry Hogan and the Maryland Department of Transportation made the right decision to proceed with the downsized project, and the Board of Public Works should approve the implementation of the project whenever it is presented to them for approval. Long-suffering residents and businesses who will face even more gridlocked future if improvements fail to advance deserve nothing less.

Edgar Gonzalez, North Potomac

The writer is executive director of the Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance.

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