Lawmakers: Pandemic Shows Traffic Congestion Can Be Cut Without Highway Expansion

    Two leading state lawmakers on transportation issues are urging Maryland’s Transportation secretary to take advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic — and the stark decline in traffic congestion since Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) imposed emergency travel restrictions — to consider new approaches to transportation policy in the state.

    The letter, sent Monday to Transportation Secretary Gregory I. Slater from Del. Marc Korman (D-Montgomery), the chairman of the House Appropriations Transportation and the Environment Subcommittee, and Del. Carol Krimm (D-Frederick), the panel’s vice chair, notes that “traffic congestion on Maryland’s major highways has practically disappeared.”

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    The lawmakers urge the state to continue emphasizing policies that encourage telework. They cite studies from Dr. Lei Zhang, director of the Maryland Transportation Institute at the University of Maryland, showing what traffic reductions are needed “to keep roadways operating at free-flow conditions on I-270, I-495, and elsewhere.”

    “In general, we only need 5% to 15% of drivers to avoid traffic bottlenecks during peak periods for all of the traffic
    jams in Maryland to dissipate,” the lawmakers write. “To achieve that reduction, drivers can choose – when practical – to work from home, use alternative modes of transportation, shift departure time, change travel routes, or use other Transportation Demand Management practices. For example, Dr. Zhang and the Institute observed in 2018 that a 2% reduction in the 114,000 vehicles that travel on I–270 northbound during the afternoon peak period (4-7 p.m.) would result in a 27% reduction in that thoroughfare’s peak period congestion. That is a mere 2,280 vehicles over three hours.”

    Korman and Krimm, who both represent districts that abut Interstate 270, call the institute’s estimates “achievable” and argue that they “do not require billions of dollars in new infrastructure investment using risky financing methods of which we have now become all too familiar with the downsides.”

    They also argue that dispensing with expensive roadway expansion plans “will allow us to re-target some
    of those funds and focus on other critical transportation needs around our State.”

    The lawmakers urge Slater to work with state and local planning authorities, transportation experts and business and community leaders to develop congestion-busting policies “in innovative ways.”

    “There are models to encourage telework,” the lawmakers say. “Virginia has offered a telework tax credit at various
    times over the years to encourage employers to establish telework policies. Montgomery County is using COVID-19 related emergency funding to help reimburse telework-related costs. A statewide effort could go even further and tie the COVID-19 related emergency to ongoing encouragement of telework. Together, these efforts can reduce highway construction costs, increase economic development, enhance traffic safety, and create more family time and better quality of life for our region’s workers.”

    The letter concludes: “Reducing or even eliminating traffic congestion through this targeted and low-cost effort would be a transformative change for the State of Maryland.”

    Despite the lawmakers’ entreaties, there is little evidence that the Hogan administration plans to jettison its ambitious and expensive plans to widen I-270 and the Capital Beltway. Administration officials describe that project as just part of their efforts to reduce traffic congestion in the state.

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    Josh Kurtz
    Co-founder and Editor Josh Kurtz is the leading chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He later became an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, and spent eight years at E&E News, an online subscription-only publisher of news websites covering energy and environmental issues. For seven of those years, he led a staff of 20 reporters at E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill and in national politics. For 6 1/2 years he wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz has given speeches and appeared on TV and radio shows about Maryland politics through the years.