Those are the only conditions Maryland transportation officials are placing on proposals they are seeking from the private sector to improve traffic flow on the state’s most congested highway. Yes, I-270 is even worse than the Beltway in Maryland, says transportation secretary Pete Rahn.
“We don’t have the solution to congestion with what we currently have available to us in our tool chest,” said Rahn in an interview at MDOT headquarters in Hanover.
The state is asking the private sector to come up with an idea — any idea that might work.
“This is as open a procurement as you can possibly imagine, telling the world that we are open to new concepts,” said Rahn. “We don’t know what it’s going to look like.”
But Rahn has ruled out one possible solution to rush hour traffic backups: toll lanes, which are expensive and time-consuming projects. One needs to simply glance across the river to Northern Virginia to see 45 miles of HOT (high-occupancy toll) lanes on I-495 and I-95 that offer motorists a choice: pay a toll for a faster ride, or stick with the regular lanes and risk getting slowed down by congestion.
“We have ruled out tolling on 270 because of the length of time that would be necessary to implement it. I would hope that we could have solutions implemented within two, maybe three years,” he said.
Proposals are due in September, but Maryland’s top transportation official said if he does not receive one he is in love with, the state won’t spend the money.
“Industry of the world, bring us your concepts, tell us how it will work and we will pay you upon your performance,” said Rahn, who said he is not aware of any quick-fix highway projects in the world that cost less than $100 million.
And critics of his approach argue it could induce more people to drive, eventually filling up I-270 with long-distance, drive-alone commuters all over again.
“The congestion can return very quickly because people change the time of their commute back into the peak hour. They may drop out of a carpool and travel alone. They might leave transit and then drive alone in the corridor,” said Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, a pro-transit group.
Schwartz favors establishing express bus service in dedicated lanes to facilitate faster commuting over long distances, and fears any short-term “improvement” to I-270 will lead to more sprawl.
“It has to start with better land use planning in Frederick County and beyond,” he said. “We need to revitalize and continue to invest in the city of Frederick and in mixed-use, walkable communities in the county, and not spread development all across the countryside where people have to drive for every trip.”
Rahn rejects the “induced demand” argument against highway projects, saying commuters have proven they are willing to drive in terrible traffic to get to work far from home.
“People are in fact willing to drive now an hour and a half, two hours, from where they work,” he said. “People will bear almost intolerable conditions in order to stay in their cars.”
Funds for an I-270 solution are part of a $2 billion transportation package backed by Gov. Larry Hogan. It focuses largely on roads but also includes funding for the Purple Line light rail system in Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties.
Photo courtesy of Raymond Wald: https://flic.kr/p/boY7nS.