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.
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.