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Opinion: Why Maryland Legislators Shouldn’t Listen to the Sierra Club on Transportation

Traffic on the American Legion Bridge connecting Maryland and Virginia. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

In a recent guest commentary (Maryland Matters, April 9), the Maryland Sierra Club shows once again how little they understand regional transportation issues and the various proposals in the Maryland General Assembly this year that could impact our ability to invest in critical infrastructure.

Instead of attacking state senators for doing their jobs and focusing on the facts, they should be rethinking their entire approach to this issue. The bills they promoted this year to block the proposed managed lanes on the American Legion Bridge and Interstate 270 were poorly drafted, displayed a lack of understanding of the P3 procurement process, and would result in nothing but more gridlock. Anti-road advocates keep losing their battles over transportation policy in our region because they keep getting their facts wrong and they keep picking the wrong battles. This needs to change.

Let’s start at the beginning.

The Sierra Club asserts the current P3 program, or the American Legion Bridge and I-270 Traffic Relief Plan, dates back to 2013 with the passage of Maryland’s landmark Public-Private-Partnership Act. This is not entirely accurate. This program, which would add two new managed “HOT” lanes in these heavily congested corridors, while keeping the existing lanes free (and rebuilding them as well), dates back much further than that.

Adding managed lanes to the Beltway and I-270 has been the subject of at least three prior Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) studies on each corridor, dating back over the past 30 years to the early 1990s. Accusing the Governor or anyone else of “fast tracking” or “cutting corners” on a 30-year study process is not just absurd, it is laughable. Virginia does not waste decades of time like this. Maryland should take a lesson from them.

The regional Transportation Planning Board (TPB) has been actively studying this idea since at least 2005, and managed lanes in both corridors were formally adopted in early 2018 as an aspirational initiative in the region’s approved long-range transportation plan titled Visualize 2045. I was on the task force that voted on this, and how they ended up in that plan is an interesting story.

Starting back around 2005, the TPB, which is responsible for regional transportation planning and maintains state-of-the-art traffic models for this purpose, noted in its analysis that by 2040, even if we built everything else in the region’s Constrained Long-Range Plan, including investing billions in new transit services, traffic delays would still grow 72% worse than they already were. This was seen by virtually everyone as not sustainable, and elected officials present spoke up and announced they could not go back to their constituents and tell them that was their future.

So the TPB started modeling various aspirational scenarios to see what could change that outcome. Only one thing did. It was not more “transit” or better land-use (in a plan that already spends more than twice as much on transit as it spends on roads). TPB’s sensitivity analysis showed that lasting traffic relief could be realized by adding new lane capacity to address key choke points in the interstate highway network (like the American Legion Bridge and I-270).

The studies indicated the new lanes could be funded with tolls and should incorporate regional commuter bus service using the new managed lanes. If that sounds familiar, that is because that is exactly what is in Maryland’s P3 program now. Starting in 2007, the Montgomery County executive and council have repeatedly named widening I-270 and the western sections of I-495, to add new managed lanes, as one of their top transportation priorities.

In the years since 2005, Virginia has already built much of its managed lane network on I-95 and I-495 and it has been very effective in reducing traffic delays, providing new carpool, vanpool and transit options, and improving speeds even for non-toll lane users. Maryland has not kept pace and has years of stagnant economic growth to show for it. The Sierra Club and their anti-road allies in elective office, whose mantra remains “more delay, please,” bear considerable responsibility for this failure.

Facts are stubborn things

Every time a major road project comes up, you can count on certain anti-road groups to trot out the same old tired arguments and half-truths, many of which were debunked years ago, to fight against any new investment in our region’s road network. They give lip-service to the need for “multi-modal” approaches but actively fight against any improvement to our road network, the one mode where Maryland’s chronic underinvestment has been most pronounced, and the mode that accounts for more than 90% of all daily trips in our region.

You hear about “Lexus Lanes,” even though the data in Virginia show no income or demographic disparities between toll lane and non-toll-lane users, and the most common autos found in Virginia’s toll lanes are Ford, Honda and Toyota, not Lexus.

But facts don’t matter if your goal is just to block any improvements to roads at all costs. So a useful exercise would be to go through the Sierra Club’s previous claims about past transportation projects and see how their predictions turned out.

Anti-road advocates spent a generation fighting the highly successful Intercounty Connector, and to this day continue to spread misinformation about it. They said if we built the ICC, it would not reduce congestion, it would just “fill up with more traffic” and cause irreparable harm to the environment. None of these things happened.

Before the current COVID situation, usage of the ICC was right in line with projections and, just as predicted, it delivered dramatic congestion relief: Average peak-hour travel times between I-95 and I-270 were cut in half, and thousands of daily cars were diverted off surrounding local roads. The only thing they accomplished was: (1) delaying traffic relief for millions of us for decades, and (2) massively driving up the cost of a project that every study showed we needed.

In the ICC’s case, this delay was especially costly. If delivered when originally planned, in the mid-1990s, the ICC could have cost under $500 million and, at that time, the federal government was funding 90% of the construction with a 10% match from states. So Maryland could have built the ICC for about $50 million in state funds, with no tolls.

We missed that boat because of a loud obstructionist minority and gutless local politicians who failed to stand up to them. Their failure cost us over $3 billion and two more decades of miserable traffic. Isn’t it time we learned from these past mistakes instead of endlessly repeating them?

Another example is the Woodrow Wilson Bridge replacement, which opponents helped delay for over a decade. This delay cost taxpayers another $1 billion, and this was for a bridge that was literally falling into the Potomac in chunks. It was also a notorious traffic chokepoint where 25-to-45-minute traffic delays were common, much like the American Legion Bridge today.

The Sierra Club argued that doubling the number of lanes from six to 12 would only attract more traffic and make congestion worse. Actual results proved them dead wrong again. The project went forward and exactly the opposite happened, a minor increase in overall volume and a massive reduction in traffic delays. We absolutely built our way out of congestion and it worked just as the traffic models said it would, yielding dramatic and lasting improvements that remain to this day. There are many more examples but, every time, in every case, the Sierra Club has been dead wrong.

Picking the wrong battles

The Sierra Club is right to be concerned about climate impacts, and the transportation sector is a big contributor. But keep in mind this sector also includes airliners, cargo ships, urban mass transit systems, freight and passenger rail, heavy trucks and automobiles.

So if one looks at how transportation emissions can best be reduced, there are lots of options that don’t involve forcing people out of their cars. Dramatic progress has been made in reducing emissions from autos, an increasing proportion of which are now being made with highly fuel-efficient engines, or as hybrids or full electrics.

So, instead of attacking the mode of travel that almost all of us use every day, wouldn’t it make more sense to make sure the cars we use don’t pollute? That is at least a more achievable goal.

Highway opponents are barking up the wrong tree by focusing on trying to reduce mobility and access to jobs, housing, daycare and other activities, by seeking to make auto travel more difficult and our roads more congested. Their efforts will cost us jobs and impose negative consequences on the economically disadvantaged. A more achievable goal would be to have a zero-emission passenger auto fleet by 2035.

Listen to the experts next time

One of the reasons the bills aimed at blocking the Maryland P3 program have (so far) failed in Annapolis is that they were so poorly drafted, without any input from industry experts in this highly technical field.

Take the so-called Promises Act (HB 67), for example. This bill sought to codify various promises MDOT had supposedly made regarding the P3 program, but it was so poorly drafted it confused the various contracts involved, distorted several of the so-called promises, and required a long list of highly specific improvements across the region (including sidewalks in Prince George’s County) as a condition for approving the first section agreement in Phase 1 (the American Legion Bridge).

This is an impossible requirement to comply with, as the necessary improvements were not even located in the section that this contract would cover, and are not even designed or approved yet. Mistakes like this would block any improvements to the American Legion Bridge outright.

Another provision would have required the state to allow any carpool/vanpool users to travel for free, but the bill did not specify that it had to be three or more passengers, as the state has already determined. Allowing all carpoolers to travel free may sound like a small thing, but the fiscal impact of HOT-2 compared to HOT-3 lanes is enough to undermine the entire financial model on which the P3 program is based. In short, this drafting error would have killed the whole program.

Other legislation (HB 485) sought to completely upend the approval process for P3 projects, adding new layers of oversight, delay and financial risk, right in the middle of two open procurements worth billions to the state (the American Legion Bridge & I-270 Program and the Purple Line). Changing the rules in the middle of the game like this, again without any input from the industry, is a surefire way to drive away investors. Several provisions also confused various contracting terms and the bill was riddled with drafting errors that would have effectively ended all P3 projects in our state.

For example, it would have required a certain risk analysis at a point in the review process where the necessary documentation would not even be available; it required financial information from subcontractors long before they would even be identified; and it contained financial provisions that would make it impossible for any P3 project to receive loan financing from a bank. Comments by MDOT and others pointing out these errors were flatly ignored. Luckily, neither bill has been enacted so far.

Maryland senators deserve some credit

We can all be thankful that the state Senate took a more careful look at this legislation, got past the false claims from road opponents, read the bills more carefully, and considered what their impact would be. This was important, given the significant economic and transportation benefits this project offers, at no net cost to Maryland taxpayers, and the thousands of good union-wage jobs it will create.

Keeping Maryland’s P3 program on track should remain a top priority for all Maryland officials as part of a balanced, truly multi-modal approach to meeting our future transportation needs. Reflexively blocking all future road projects is a losing strategy for Maryland workers, the traveling public, our growing region, and the Sierra Club too. It’s time for a more thoughtful, forward-looking approach.


The writer has been a member of the Citizens Advisory Committee to the Transportation Planning Board at Council of Governments since 2002. He is the vice chair of the Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance.


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Opinion: Why Maryland Legislators Shouldn’t Listen to the Sierra Club on Transportation