Background

Interstate 270 (I-270) is a 34.7-mile interstate highway between I-495 and I-70 connecting Bethesda and Frederick. The freeway was built between 1953 and 1960, initially as part of I-70 S until designated I-270 in 1975.

In September 2017, Governor Hogan announced a public-private partnership (P3) that would add managed toll lanes to the existing general purpose lanes on I-495 and I-270, putting homes, neighborhoods, and businesses near the highways at risk of being taken over. This would be the largest P3 project in North America; the contractual agreements between the State and private companies will be for a term of 50 years.

Widening Highways Doesn’t Work

By the 1980’s, I-270 had earned a reputation as one of the region’s most congested highways. To solve this problem, I-270 was widened to twelve lanes. But widening highways isn’t a long-term solution for congestion. Again and again, we’ve seen traffic getting worse and overwhelming the additional capacity in a matter of years.

When the new lanes opened to traffic in October 1990, the Washington Post reported that “I-270 should be able to handle the growth in traffic through the year 2010.”  But the benefit really only lasted five years, and before even a decade had gone by traffic was as bad or worse than before.

By 1999, congestion on the road grew to then-projected 2010 levels. A 1999 Washington Post article found that “now, less than eight years after the project was finished, the highway has again been reduced to what one official called ‘a rolling parking lot.’”

The Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) announced their Traffic Relief Plan to reduce traffic congestion by adding four toll lanes to the existing general purpose lanes. But widening highways doesn’t actually relieve congestion. It may seem logical that adding more lanes would reduce traffic, but what actually happens is that more lanes attract more drivers, and traffic builds up again. Traffic will fill empty space. It’s called induced demand, and it’s been documented all over the country, and all over the world.

The U.S. Public Interest Research Group’s latest list of highway “boondoggles,“ calling out expensive projects that would do little to solve problems and divert funds away from better solutions, included Maryland’s $9 billion P3 proposal for I-270 and I-495,

What is a P3 Project?

A P3 partnership is a way of financing public infrastructure projects with private-sector funding, commonly for projects such as transportation, with the private entity performing many of the functions normally undertaken by the government. P3s give governments greater flexibility for funding projects, but at the expense of higher costs for the project (since private financing is more expensive than public) and frequently with reductions in State control over its own assets and financial risks assumed by the State.

The proposed I-495 & I-270 P3 Program would add four privatized managed toll lanes. The companies would recoup their investments by collecting tolls from motorists who use the managed lanes, leading to concerns about the cost of traveling in these lanes and financial liability for the State if the toll revenue doesn’t cover the private investor’s costs.

The more expensive the project, the higher the tolls have to be to cover the costs. The Action Committee on Transit estimates that tolls for new lanes added to I-270 north of Shady Grove could be as high as $41 per trip.

MDOT gathered over 2,200 public comments about the project and then quietly published a compendium and summary of them. When asked for reactions to the 15 alternatives MDOT put forward, the top preferences from the public were for technological solutions to better manage traffic, heavy and light rail, contraflow (a form of reversible lane) and make no changes. The theme that got the second highest support overall was transit. Yet just days after posting this summary, MDOT announced that it had decided to drop the most-preferred options from consideration and instead focus only on different ways of adding lanes. 

Legislation

In Maryland, a bill undergoes many steps before it becomes law and citizen participation throughout the process is key. If a legislator elects to sponsor a bill, it is introduced to the appropriate committee for consideration. Citizens are encouraged to present their views on the proposed bills by mail or by personal appearance and can provide testimony at committee hearings in support or opposition to the bill. DontWiden270.org supports legislation to block widening I-270 and set higher standards for major road projects.

Unfortunately, the 2019 Maryland legislature headed home without enacting any legislation that requires the Governor or the MDOT to change their plans on adding managed toll lanes to I-495 and I-270. But we have made this a much hotter issue for a lot of legislators.

In the end, after hearing from an overwhelming number of you, Delegate Kumar Barve, who represents Montgomery County District 17, used his influence to move a bill, HB 1091, out of his Environment and Transportation Committee and through the House. HB 1091 would have created basic oversight for privately-financed transportation projects to protect taxpayers, the environment and the State’s fiscal health.

However, we have work to do in the Senate. Ultimately, Senator Nancy King, who represents Montgomery County’s District 39 and chairs the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, killed HB 1091. Senator King told Maryland Matters that she trusts MDOT Secretary Pete Rahn and didn’t want to delay traffic relief, and so decided to keep HB 1091 bottled up in her committee (notwithstanding that there were enough votes from members of her committee to move the bill forward).

What’s Next?

The following is the current timeline released by MDOT:

 ·       Spring 2019:  MDOT will hold multiple public workshops related to the I-495 and I-270 Managed Lanes Study.

·       Fall 2019:  Release of the draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) analyzing the various impacts of the options MDOT is considering. Concurrent with the EIS, MDOT plans to seek proposals from the private sector to enter into a P3 with the State.

·       Early 2020:  Public hearings will be held on MDOT’s preferred alternative.

·       Fall 2020:   The EIS will be completed – this is the point when the State can make a formal decision about the project.

While the legislative session is over, this fight is not. Governor Hogan may soon attempt to get approval from the Board of Public Works to hire contractors to work on the project. But there are still 18 months of preliminary assessments and processes MDOT must follow before it can even make a formal decision, let alone move the first shovelful of dirt.

We must urge all the lawmakers to continue working on this issue before the next session of the General Assembly and to be prepared to enact legislation as soon as the General Assembly reconvenes in January 2020. This issue is too important for our champions to leave until the 2nd half of the session. They need to hear the message that protecting our homes and neighborhoods must be the top priority as soon as the next session is gaveled in.