Guest Commentary: We Can’t Pave Our Way Out of Traffic on I-270

By Ben Shnider

I love living in Rockville. However, the amount of time I spend in traffic along the I-270 corridor can make living in this place that I love very frustrating. I’ve wasted countless hours that could have been spent with my family, getting work done, or — God forbid — relaxing, parked on the highway instead.

This challenge is more than a mere inconvenience. The quality of our community’s transportation options dictates the degree of economic opportunity available to our residents. After all, a quality job isn’t much good if the commute to that job is untenable. And a seemingly affordable home might not be so affordable if the household needs to own two cars to get around town. Each day the transportation crisis facing Montgomery County gets worse. Too many families lack reliable and affordable transportation options — and this challenge disproportionately impacts low-income families living in under-resourced neighborhoods.

Shnider

Ben Shnider, a candidate for Montgomery County Council

There are, however, different philosophies about how to tackle this crisis. One insists that the problem is the lack of space for drivers, especially those who ride alone. This dated outlook presumes that the automobile is the only mode of transportation that truly matters. The other philosophy recognizes that the more mobility choices that people have, the less congestion we’ll experience. Focusing on a full range of options for moving people, instead of exclusively cars, enhances our county’s overall vibrancy, improves the health of our community, and encourages economic mobility.

A case in point is Gov. Larry Hogan’s $9 billion proposal to add four new toll lanes to I-270 and the Maryland segment of I-495, which was the subject of Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn’s appearance before the Montgomery County Council’s Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy & Environment Committee in Rockville on Nov. 16. The governor seems to think we can pave our way out of our traffic crisis. Secretary Rahn’s comments during his appearance underscored the governor’s dubious proposition that a private sector partner (to be identified) will magically make a such an anachronistic proposition feasible. He is also willing to bet unlimited sums of taxpayer dollars on this red herring.

He’s wrong. And Montgomery County stakeholders should unite around an alternative vision that embraces a truly multi-modal approach to congestion relief.

That vision should encompass all-day, week-long MARC service on MARC’s Brunswick Line, Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) for Routes 355 and 586, and increased express RideOn offerings — modeled after the new RideOn Extra Route 101. If I-270 is expanded, that expansion should be limited to two lanes that reverse with the flow of traffic, and give priority to buses and carpools.

We should not shy away from calling out the governor’s proposal for the election year political stunt that it is. His price tag is unrealistic, and his solution is disconnected from the problem it seeks to solve.

Traffic along I-270 is largely timed for the morning and evening rush and shifts with the direction of the commute. Additionally, many of Montgomery County’s worst bottlenecks occur along the major corridors beyond our highways, including Route 355 at First Street/Wootton Parkway, and Route 355 at Route 586. The idea that an auto-centric approach to I-270 will improve conditions on such local roads defies common sense. A more holistic approach than simply adding four lanes of road is needed to address both of these dynamics.

What’s more, the importance of a multi-modal approach to alleviating traffic along the I-270 Corridor is nothing new. In 2007, the state itself proposed increased capacity on MARC’s Brunswick Line. In 2009, the County Council and County Executive proposed two reversible, high occupancy toll lanes on I-270 between Shady Grove Road and Frederick County, along with advancing the fixed-guideway Corridor Cities Transitway. In 2013 the County Council adopted a functional master plan establishing the corridors for a BRT network. Planning for BRT on the Route 355 corridor, both northern and southern segments, is well underway. As a precursor to BRT, in October the county began operation of Route 101 (Ride-On Extra), a limited stop bus route on Route 355 with specially designed buses, 10-minute headways and traffic signal priority.

Unfortunately, in spite of this precedent, the governor prefers to take a 1950s approach to transportation along I-270. Meanwhile, other jurisdictions are leading the way in offering multimodal solutions to easing congestion. Most notably, even car-centric Houston has refocused its bus service along major corridors and increased express service. That effort boosted the system’s revenue and ridership, while bringing down costs considerably (a potential model for advancing BRT and express RideOn countywide). Further, study after study continues to affirm that simply widening roads to solve congestion almost always leads to squandered taxpayer dollars.

In sum, any effort to ease congestion along the I-270 corridor centered around widening roads will land me and my neighbors back in traffic in due time. And falling short on this defining challenge will exacerbate income inequality and the opportunity gap in our community. Therefore, it’s critical for the county to step up the pressure — at all levels and in all quarters — for a comprehensive, truly multimodal proposal for relieving congestion on I-270.

Ben Shnider, a Democrat, is a candidate for Montgomery County Council in the 3rd District.

8 comments

  • Rockville Commuter

    Amen. I am stuck daily in a hellish commute from Rockville and I have no interest in short-term solutions like widening highways. The only way we get out of this mess is to truly invest in a variety of modes of transport.

    Moreover, something that Shinder didn’t mention here is that we cannot address seriously climate change if we continue to subsidize car travel by building more and more highways.

    With his car-first transportation policy (not to mention silence on the withdrawal from the Paris Accords) Hogan has decided to side with Trump on climate change, which is insanity.

  • Right on point. Hogan should be called out on his political stunts to pave more roads and especially to make them toll roads for the wealthy. This election year false solution will be a major long term error and missed opportunity for the real solutions – -which is a much more varied response to confronting congestion. More roads will invite more drivers, more development along new roads also adding more drivers. Hogan is like an ancient doctor bleeding the patient and killing the patient. In the end, Hogan’s election year promises are false solutions that will make the problem worse. Doing more of the same that has failed will just create more failure.

  • Excellent commentary by someone who I hope will be a future member of County Council.

  • Thank you, Ben, for another carefully thought-out and clearly written analysis. Keep up the great work!

  • Gaithersburg Voter

    Sounds good but will only work for those who don’t have to worry about making multiple stops a day. I have three kids, a full-time job (not home-based) and volunteer in my community. How will the BRT or CCT help my life get any easier? If you are commuting from Frederick its because taxes are too high here in MoCo. How will buses help those commuters? Ben seems like a nice guy but enough with the political talking points and buzz words. I need a car to get me to several places EACH day and by the looks of traffic patterns these days A LOT of families are in the same boat. Using public transportation and riding a bike may work for Ben and his friends but a lot of us need politicians to get real and pay attention to what we as a MAJORITY need. Many of us are too busy working and chauffeuring our kids to show up at political fundraisers where he is preaching to the choir. Nice to hear that Ben has nothing to new offer-more of the same tired comments we are already getting from the Council who can’t run again. Your #1 focus should be on reigning in the County’s budget and out of control debt or getting the State to pay local government their $ from the transportation trust fund to our crumbling roads/bridges. We can’t keep up with the transportation infrastructure we have now! Metro is a disaster. BTW local government should get out of the partisan game. It’s not helping the County Council or the Board of Education who need the State to help with costs. County taxpayers will continue to see the Council raising our taxes to make up the difference. Our County tax bills don’t care what party you are from. We all get hit the same.

  • Thanks for responding to the Governor’s vaporware proposal (nothing specific to evaluate until after the election) with specific actions to address transportation problems. Two additional points: (1) more cars on the road means more greenhouse gasses and more global warming, so let’s head in the opposite direction; (2) more and more corporations want to be located near transit and in walkable environments (Exhibit A — Marriott; Exhibit B, Rock Spring Office Park vacancy rate).

  • Gaithersburg Voter

    Ben is running for District 3. Hopefully the concerns of Gaithersburg and Rockville voters matter more to him than throwing jabs at the Governor or listening to party supporters from outside his district. We will see. His District is home to a lot of working class residents who want to bring home more of their paycheck and less $ for projects that will create more debt. Oh and many voters know how global warming works but we are also aware that there is no $ to keep up with the transit we have. So the solution is to build more and have the MAJORITY of people who don’t use it pay for it? Got it. Maybe if campaigns actually focused on things that really matter the voter turnout rate would be higher. Marriott like every other corporation gets massive tax breaks. Can’t say that for Montgomery County voters who saw an almost 9% increase(!). Talk about factors that create “income inequality and the opportunity gap in our community”. Yeah, lets not keep moving in that direction. Ben’s proposal sounds great but unless the County can pony up a majority of the $ its not going to happen.

  • Pingback: Letter to the Editor: Amie Hoeber Responds to Ben Shnider’s Op-ed on Traffic, Praises Gov. Hogan’s Plan | Maryland Matters

Leave a Reply