KENSINGTON – County government and transportation officials discussed traffic congestion and possible solutions in a “21st Century Transportation Solutions” forum sponsored by Do the Most Good on March 9.
While the forum at Newport News Middle School covered road widening, rapid bus transit and Metro and pedestrian deaths, many attendees focused on the Maryland State Highway Administration’s plans to add toll lanes to Interstates 495 and 270.
The state currently is reviewing seven alternatives, six of which include adding new lanes in each direction. Those six alternatives call for high-occupancy vehicle lanes or managed lanes and would also allow for express bus routes.
Panelists and audience members alike agreed that road congestion is a problem in the county. But while many seemed to favor public transportation, they also acknowledged that would not solve the problem entirely.
“Transit is the most-efficient way to move people dollar for dollar,” said Councilman Tom Hucker, who said that the state’s road widening plan “really threatens hundreds of houses.”
But Susan Swift, executive director of Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance, said her organization supports the state’s plans, though not at 100 percent.
According to Swift, studies show “we need to add lanes; express toll lanes are the only thing that works.”
She urged the audience to think of the proposed changes to I-495 and I-270 as more like the Intercounty Connector (Maryland Route 200) with its low tolls and less like Virginia, where peak-time pricing sometimes reach $40 or $50.
Public transportation is important, she said, but for many who live in the northern part of the county, it is often not possible.
She urged everyone to realize, “You don’t have to pay for tolls. You can stay in the free lanes.”
When asked why county officials are being left out of the decision-making process, Swift replied, “These types of projects will never go through,” because no one wants them in their backyard.
Stuart Schwartz, president of Coalition for Smarter Growth, suggested that a better solution would be to invest in areas well-served by public transportation rather than to continue spreading the county’s growth farther away from stores, jobs and public transportation.
But Swift disagreed, noting, “The notion that roads spur development is false. The road isn’t the bad guy here.”
During the two-and-a-half-hour forum, Del. Vaughn Stewart (D-19) reviewed pending bills in Annapolis that would add local participation in the plans and demand environmental studies before decisions are made.
He also pointed to a provision in the proposed state budget that would remove $300,000 from the state’s Department of Transportation budget if an environmental study isn’t done first.
Stewart acknowledged that improving public transportation and creating more-walkable communities would be expensive.
“It is costly, but it also is costly not to do that,” he said.
“The real answer is all of the above,” summed up Gaithersburg councilman Neil Harris.
Schwartz agreed, noting, “When you get this right, you have to do the transit and land use together.”
The need for pedestrian safety also was discussed, with Hucker noting that even one death is too many and that the county is focused on making it safer for walkers and bicycle riders in its Vision Zero plan.
That plan calls for no pedestrian deaths by 2030.