Suburban Md. Transportation Alliance: Highway Opponents Get It All Wrong

Tolls
Pexels.com photo.

A recent commentary by U.S. PIRG lays out a false and misleading narrative that bears correcting on several key points [“Capital Beltway Boondoggle Doesn’t Merit Revote,” Maryland Matters, July 14].

Unfortunately, several local officials on the National Capital Region’s Transportation Planning Board (TPB) seem to be buying into these falsehoods and voted last month to remove any proposed improvements to the American Legion Bridge and Interstate 270 – two of the most congested interstate highway segments in the nation – from their regional air quality analysis. This vote needs to be reversed, as the unintended consequences of this short-sighted act are severe and devastating from a transportation, quality-of-life and fiscal standpoint.

The public-private partnership program is essential to the transportation and economic future of our region, which is why it was added to the region’s long-range plan in the first place, after years of effort by a planning task force on which I served. Without it, prior versions of the region’s Constrained Long-Range Plan showed traffic delays would grow 72% worse by 2040 than they already were in 2015.

With traffic now back to pre-COVID levels, and expected to continue growing in the future, nothing about those earlier projections has changed. The clear and predictable results of removing these improvements from the TPB’s plan would include a catastrophic increase in congestion and over a billion dollars in cuts to other transit and road projects that are currently planned. This is because the 62-year-old American Legion Bridge needs repairs regardless, and without the planned private funds that approximate $800 million cost will be borne by taxpayers, and thousands of good union-wage construction jobs will be lost, something that will hurt working families hardest.

These are among the many unintended consequences that TPB officials did not even consider or debate in their ill-conceived action last month. These are also facts that voters should remember in next year’s elections so these officials can be held accountable if this vital program is not restored. The record will reflect which local officials stood up for the years of sound planning, and which ones voted to doom our region to years of worsening congestion.

In addition to offering the single most effective way to address congestion, the proposed HOT lanes also boost carpooling, reduce reliance on single-occupancy-vehicles, and dramatically improve regional transit service by letting transit buses use the new lanes for free, while providing faster, less congested and more reliable travel for all users, whether they choose to pay a toll or not.

Claims of outrageous toll rates are equally baseless.

The state has provided toll projections showing average trip costs of $3.95 per trip for the first section of the P3 project. That is less than the average trip cost on the Virginia Express Lanes on I-495 ($5.40) and data there show the average user spends less than $20 per month. The maximum per-mile rates opponents point to will only kick in under unusually heavily congested situations and will only apply to an individual tolling segment, not the entire route, as some have claimed.

Overall, the expected average toll rates are estimated to be in line with or below the national average for similar recently constructed facilities. The I-495 Express Lanes project in Virginia has also cut congestion delays dramatically for users of the free [non-toll] lanes, just as the Maryland project would, meaning everyone benefits even if you choose not to pay any tolls.

Opponents also continue to misrepresent the findings of the state’s financial projections when it comes to whether the P3 project can pay for itself without a state subsidy.

The answer is, it clearly can, but opposition delays do increase the cost beyond best-case scenarios. Opponents mislead the public by selectively cherry-picking only one column of a data chart that showed a range of possible net cashflow scenarios. That chart showed a range of outcomes that included more than a $2 billion surplus, with most of the scenarios showing no taxpayer subsidy would be needed. In any case, the formal Request for Proposal documents clearly specified that the project will be delivered at no net cost to the state, so there has been no walking back on this point. All the risk if future revenues fall short of projections will be on the private investors, not Maryland taxpayers.

That has also been made quite clear but continues to be misstated by opponents.

For years I have heard opponents claim there is a fixed “transit” alternative to improving the American Legion Bridge. This too is false.

In 30 years of study in this corridor, not one viable transit-only alternative has ever been identified that reduces congestion or improves travel times significantly. Then there are the obvious questions: How we would pay for the billions it would take to build and operate a new rail transit line here? Where is that funding coming from, and what is the proposed right of way? (FYI, a new transit line would likely take out dozens or even hundreds of homes, so whose homes will need to be taken?).

Curiously, the recent talk about increasing MARC train capacity along I-270 as an alternative to the project only takes commuters to Union Station in D.C., not Northern Virginia across the American Legion Bridge. It does not even consider that adding an entire new track to MARC (which is near impossible for multiple reasons) only provides a 2% increase in commuters not using I-270. Moreover, it is no small issue that the state of Virginia is legally prohibited from adding rail to I-495 on its side of the American Legion Bridge.

Happily, transit can be part of the solution, which the P3 program proposes by allowing buses to use the new lanes for faster service, but it simply is not possible to address these traffic chokepoints with transit alone, and we have known this for years. Transit advocates, and I am one, too often forget that we also need to move goods, ship packages, accommodate interstate through-trips and the many other non-commuting purposes that make up 80% of traffic. Transit helps with a portion of daily commuters, but that is pretty much it, and it never pays for itself without large public subsidies. I would ask all those highway opponents who express concerns about the P3 paying for itself to address this apparent inconsistency in their position.

My motto is “We need it all. It’s not an either-or.”

In voting last month to remove the American Legion Bridge and I-270 improvements, TPB members acted hastily and without any discussion about the potential consequences of this action, but there is still time to reverse course and avoid the damage this action will cause.

First, removal of the P3 means a loss to the regional economy of the entire $6 billion in private-sector investment we are currently set to receive. As this money ripples through the local economy many times, the net loss is many times this amount. Just for the first section of the project, from the American Legion Bridge to the I-270/I-370 interchange, the P3 will bring in over $3.5 billion and create more than 7,500 new jobs.

All that is gone if the TPB’s vote is upheld and not reversed.

SMTA
Emmet Tydings, chair of the Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance. Facebook photo.

And there is a bigger problem: The American Legion Bridge and portions of I-495 will need to be repaired in any case within the next decade, along with other aging structures, and the state is estimating this will take at least $1.5 billion just to keep everything in a state of good repair. All these costs were included in the $6 billion price tag for the P3 project, but with its removal by the TPB, that $1.5 billion now must come from other needed transit and road improvements that are already programmed for construction.

While Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich, one of the chief obstructionists on this project, has claimed raising this issue is “arm twisting,” he is dead wrong. It is pure math and fiscal reality.

If we are not getting an infusion of billions of dollars in private investment, these facilities must be maintained with public tax dollars. TPB should have had that discussion at its last meeting, but it was not on its radar screen. For this reason alone, there is an urgent need to revisit this decision as critical transit projects like the Corridor Cities Transitway in the long-range plan, which the Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance has championed for decades, will now be back on the chopping block.

Finally, Elrich, who initiated the TPB motion, has said he does not favor using private funds for these improvements and is urging the state to use federal funds instead. Yet, by his own actions in moving to take the American Legion Bridge and I-270 project out of our regional plans, he has made the entire project ineligible for federal funding. For this reason alone, he should support putting the project back into TPB’s air quality analysis.

This is what happens when elected leaders bow to political pressure from unaccountable anti-road special interest groups, like U.S. PIRG, that continue to demonstrate low expertise on transportation issues, zero interest in reducing congestion, and zero ability to address our region’s long-term transportation needs or economic challenges.

The Transportation Planning Board should reverse this short-sighted abdication of its responsibilities as a regional planning agency, and all Maryland officials should come together behind the more limited version of this P3 plan that essentially gives them everything they have been asking for.

We cannot afford to waste this once-in-a-generation opportunity for lasting traffic relief.

EMMET TYDINGS

The writer is chair of the Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance.