U.S. PIRG: Capital Beltway Boondoggle Doesn’t Merit Revote

Beltway
Taras Makarenko/pexels.com photo.

Gov. Larry Hogan’s top transportation priority is running out of gas. Even though the original proposal to expand the American Legion Bridge and add multiple toll lanes to I-495 and I-270 has been significantly scaled back, the governor is still trying to salvage what remains of this wasteful highway boondoggle.

The National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board, a federally designated planning organization, recently voted to remove the project from the region’s long-range transportation plan. In response to losing this key vote, the governor and other project backers are pushing TPB members to reconsider the Capital Beltway project at their next meeting later this month.

The science is clear: Highway expansion doesn’t solve traffic congestion. It makes it worse. Not only does widening our highways trap us in our cars, it also increases the amount of harmful pollution going into our lungs and the climate. Time and again, the theory of “induced demand,” has shown that highway expansions ultimately become congested shortly after new lanes are added.

The Capital Beltway expansion is not a viable solution for Maryland commuters and families.

State officials have failed to provide reliable toll revenue projections for the multibillion dollar project. One study estimated that tolls for the Capital Beltway could end up being more than $2 per mile — over 200 times the national average.

Further, it’s likely that these expensive tolls won’t even cover the project’s full costs. Although Gov. Hogan has stated that the Capital Beltway expansion will come at “no net cost” to local taxpayers, this keeps getting walked back, as one study estimated that the project could require a government subsidy between $482 million to $1 billion.

In addition to concerns about the project’s cost, the Capital Beltway expansion has been met with fierce opposition from environmental activists and local planning officials. The project will threaten hundreds of acres of natural parkland and streams as well as require the destruction of numerous homes. The project will also increase the amount of deadly air pollution in the state, harming public health and our planet for decades to come. To make matters worse, transportation is now Maryland’s number one source of greenhouse gas emissions and the single largest contributor to the global climate crisis.

New political winds in Washington are setting a fresh course, 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. It’s time for Maryland to take a fresh approach to transportation spending and rethink the way we get around.

We don’t need more highway lanes. We need more electrified public transit, expanded bike lanes and safe walking infrastructure, so people can live more and drive less.

Members of the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board made the right call when they voted to strike the Capital Beltway project from the region’s long-range transportation plan and they should stand by their decision.

— JOHN STOUT

The writer is the transportation advocate for PIRG.