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State’s Montgomery Co. ‘Road Show’ Goes Off the Rails

A proposal by Montgomery County leaders to divert traffic off the Capital Beltway won’t advance, Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn said on Monday, because engineers determined after a preliminary analysis that the idea lacks merit.

County officials have wanted the state to consider luring motorists onto the InterCounty Connector highway as a way of reducing delays on the Beltway (Interstate 495). That, they believed, could reduce the need for the ambitious — and controversial — road-widening plan that Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) unveiled in 2017.

But at a public hearing in Rockville, Rahn said the Montgomery proposal will not receive further study.

“It doesn’t work,” Rahn said. “It adds time to commutes. It does not address where the bulk of the commutes — the origin and destination — is at. … It had the same level of analysis as the other alternatives and it didn’t perform well.”

Rahn and a half-dozen MDOT administrators spoke with county officials and members of Montgomery’s Annapolis delegation during a sometimes tense public briefing on the state’s proposed fiscal year 2020-2025 Consolidated Transportation Program, a ritual long known as the “road show.”

Speaker after speaker asked Rahn to reconsider the plan to widen I-270 and the Beltway using a controversial public-private partnership concept. Under Hogan’s proposal, private contractors would build and maintain four “express lanes” on the two roads at no cost to the state, in exchange for the right to charge tolls on the new lanes for 50 years or more.

Existing lanes would remain available for motorists to use without paying tolls, with the “concessionaires” — likely an international consortium of deep-pocketed firms — picking up maintenance costs for them as well.

In the weeks leading up to his 2018 re-election bid, Hogan pledged that no homes or businesses would be taken by the project. While the state may be able to keep that pledge on I-270, approximately 30 homes and businesses — and some parkland — would likely be taken to widen the Beltway.

“We do not support any widening of I-270 beyond the existing right-of-way,” said Rockville Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton, a transit advocate. “There are other ways to take care of our terrible congestion.”

“Toll roads are regressive,” she added. “All you have to do is look at Texas, Illinois, Indiana and Virginia to see what happens when toll roads fail. Mr. Secretary, no disrespect intended, but it doesn’t not fall on the taxpayers. Eventually it does.”

Del. Lorig Charkoudian (D-Montgomery) said express toll lanes exacerbate existing “equity” issues by making it easier for the wealthy to pass lower-income motorists poking along in the free lanes. “The idea of moving people who have money faster than people who don’t have money [is] a significant concern.”

State and local leaders also implored MDOT officials to put the long-planned Corridor Cities Transitway back onto the state’s transportation priority list. The CCT, a proposed bus rapid transit system linking Clarksburg and the Shady Grove Metro station, expected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars, has been offloaded onto the county.

Montgomery County Executive Marc B. Elrich (D) said the state’s decision to abandon the CCT would harm the Maryland economy — particularly the county’s booming bio-tech industry.

“We really need this back,” he told Rahn. “If you’re constrained budgetarily, for a lack of money, walking away from a project that’s actually going to generate revenues is a mistake.”

Rahn defended the decision to shift the CCT to the county, saying the Purple Line light-rail project, now under construction, is drawing down the state’s transportation trust fund dramatically.

“We have to draw a line somewhere,” he said. “I can assure you Montgomery and Prince George’s are definitely getting multiples of their shares of investment dollars.”

Though he didn’t say so publicly on Monday, Rahn told Maryland Matters in an interview that the transitway has too many station stops to be a draw for commuters.

“It started out as this bus rapid transit that was supposed to relieve traffic on I-270, and it’s morphed into a local bus route,” he said. “It’s no longer direct. It goes over and wanders through a development. It’s got multiple stops. The whole idea of BRT is direct [with just] a few stops.”

Elrich said the county has proposed tweaks to the project to make it more streamlined, changes he hopes to be able to present to MDOT officials in the future. [Elrich also accused Hogan of abdicating his responsibilities as governor. See related story.]

Montgomery lawmakers repeatedly praised MDOT administrators for their willingness to provide assistance on a range of issues, including construction impacts related to the Purple Line, neighborhood safety concerns, road improvements, the Motor Vehicle Administration’s system for helping residents obtain federally-approved driver’s licenses and more.

But the evening was marked by palpable strain as well:

  • County leaders are mistrustful of the public-private partnership process that the state insists on using to widen the Beltway and I-270. Rahn would not pledge to release “origin and destination” data considered crucial to determining the appropriate scope of highway expansion projects. He said such that information belongs to the companies that compiled it and is proprietary. That resulted in a testy back-and-forth with Del. Marc Korman (D-Montgomery).
  • Sen. Susan Lee (D-Montgomery) pressed Rahn on how the state intends to deal with the daily slowdowns that occur on northbound I-270 north of I-370, a bottleneck that is certain to grow if the lower part of 270 is widened. Rahn’s response — “our intentions are to address congestion” — did not appear to satisfy Lee or the audience.
  • County Councilmember Tom Hucker (D) pressed Rahn on whether the General Assembly would get the opportunity to set limits on what motorists would pay to use the new express toll lanes. Rahn said they would not, because the Maryland Transportation Authority has the power to contract directly with the vendor on toll rates.
  • Hucker said the state has spent more than $40 million on planning and design for a dozen road projects that have “languished for more than a decade.” When, Hucker asked, would the state come up with the roughly $1 billion to move forward on these improvements? “I have no idea,” Rahn said. “OK — thank you so much,” Hucker replied, a touch of sarcasm in his voice.

As Rahn and the lawmakers skirmished, hundreds of residents sat in the Council auditorium listening. Many held signs signaling their opposition to road widening and urging greater investment in transit. Some booed, hissed and grumbled as Rahn spoke.

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State’s Montgomery Co. ‘Road Show’ Goes Off the Rails