Opinion: The Myths Surrounding the I-495/I-270 Highway Expansion

Myths
Maryland Department of Transportation 1-495 & I-270 Managed Lanes Study Interactive Map screenshot

Are you kidding?

There is a battle of ideas and politics going on about the value of expanding the Capital Beltway (Interstate 495) and I-270. But with the just-released Environmental Impact Statement by the Maryland Department of Transportation we have for the first time concrete numbers that reveal the meaning of this proposed project.

What have we learned?

Myth 1: Congestion on I-270 in particular will get worse and there is nothing to be done except build more highways.

You may be surprised to find that MDOT’s own numbers for peak-hour travel times southbound on I-270 and I-495 actually improve by more than 40% between today and 2040 because MDOT has a traffic management plan that it is currently implementing.

For example, a trip from I-370 to the Montrose Road interchange takes 16.3 minutes today but will take 9.2 minutes in 2040 without building anything. If you go from I-370 to River Road you save over 10 minutes from 26.2 to 15.3 minutes. Kudos for MDOT. Did I actually say that?

Myth 2: Drivers who don’t use the toll lanes will still have significant time savings.

(The expanded highway will look like the existing Virginia toll road. It will have toll lanes with 10%, maybe 15% of the drivers, and the non-toll lanes with 85% to 90%. For comparison in the study, MDOT refers to the no-build option, where the current highway configuration is retained with traffic management improvements.)

In 2040, the non-toll lanes part of the toll road will be three minutes faster than the no-build option if you are going from I-370 to Montrose Road southbound on I-270 in the morning during peak hours.

But that time advantage begins to disappear if you travel to River Road or Virginia, only two minutes better at River Road and essentially zero when you reach the Clara Barton exit near the American Legion Bridge.

Why doesn’t the toll road help the non-toll lanes more? To get people to use the toll road you have to have real unpredictable congestion in the non-toll lanes. No one will pay tolls otherwise.

Worse, the unpredictable congestion makes the 2- or 3-minutes savings useless for planning your life.

Myth 3. If you are a commuter on I-270 the toll lanes will change your life.

First, what we are talking about is the I-270 part of the proposed MDOT highway expansion. It includes a southbound segment (1) from I-370 to where the spur meets the Beltway and its counterpart northbound, segment (2) from the I-270 spur starting at the Beltway and ending up at I-370.

Building the toll road on I-270 and its spurs is essentially the equivalent of building the infamous bridge to nowhere. You can spend the money, but it won’t get you much.

The reason building the I-270 part of the MDOT project is worth so little is the non-toll-lanes drivers will save no time on their daily round trip commute, while the 10% to 15% who use the toll lanes will save only six minutes on their round trip commute.

More concretely, in the morning non-toll drivers southbound on I-270 are projected to save about 4 minutes over the no-build drivers, but in the commute home northbound on I-270 (segment 2) there is a surprise. Time savings are reversed, with travel in the non-toll lanes two to six minutes slower than the no build. Non-toll-road time savings for the round trip – zero.

OK, the non-toll lanes are a disappointment. But the toll lanes will be great, right?

The morning I-270 commute on the toll lanes from I-370 to the Beltway is projected to be six minutes faster than the no-build. But the reverse trip in the evening peak has another surprise. Travel time on the toll lanes is not any faster than the no-build option for the trip back to I-370.

Toll lane users are left with only the six minutes of savings for the round trip.

So, in order to save the six minutes for 10% to 15% of the commuters, we will build a toll road between I-370 and the Beltway that:

— Will cost hundreds of millions if not a billion dollars.

— Creates transportation chaos during construction, because all the interchanges and probably all other bridges along this part of I-270 will have to be rebuilt to accommodate widening I-270 to 14 or more lanes.

— And finally, and most importantly, profoundly disrupt the I-270 communities, especially the city of Rockville.

Why would anybody do this?

Myth 4: The people in the toll lanes will pay for this and anyway the construction companies are going to build it at their own expense, so we don’t pay.

First, there is a $1 billion to $2 billion WSSC bill currently not funded by the companies for moving all the water- and sewage-related infrastructure because of the toll road construction. Guess who will pay if the companies don’t?

Second, if the Purple Line is any guide, the public-private partnerships are often contentious and have surprising costs. Moreover, the government is about to give away a toll lane right of way that is worth hundreds of millions if not a billion or more dollars because no private company could assemble that unbroken ribbon of land by themselves.

Finally, do we want a two-tiered system? For those drivers who can afford $15, $20 or more in one direction, they are guaranteed a minimum of 45 mph, and significantly, they can rely on that speed every day. Those folks can plan, while 90% of the drivers have a daily traffic crap shoot.

Those on the toll road will pay, but not really the full price. Others will pay living with the construction chaos and continuing environmental and community degradation. The public in general is likely to pay in dollars given the track record of this type of project.

We can learn a lot from the numbers. Look at them yourself.

Make MDOT explain why this project is not so great. Sign up for the public hearings this month and next on this project. Send your comments to MDOT. Then ask the comptroller, governor and your Maryland legislators where they stand.

It’s your money and your lives. But one thing is surely not true, “I will build it and you won’t have to pay for it.”

— ARTHUR KATZ

The writer is a resident of Rockville.