ROCKVILLE — Research has found that delays for auto commuters along I-495 and I-270 at peak travel times are triple or even quadruple the time it takes to travel during free-flowing times.
The Montgomery County Council heard reports on the Managed Lane Study from the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) and the Maryland State Highway Administration on March 19, about possible solutions for the congestion on the major interstates in the area.
Interstates 495 and 270 are two of the most-congested routes in the nation, based on annual delay and congestion per car commuter, according to the study conducted by MDOT.
Pete Rahn, secretary of the Department of Transportation, reported to the council that if improvements aren’t made to the corridors, travel times could worsen by 70 percent by 2040, according to the Managed Lane Study.
“We’re looking at roughly 70 miles of improvements,” Rahn said. “It will address the kinds of bottlenecks and congestion that the region is suffering from.”
Rahn explained that once we see travel delays like we currently have in the area, they will lead to more congestion but also an extension of the rush hour commute time into earlier in the day.
“It just spreads out over a longer and longer period of time,” he said. “And it’s going to grow as the region continues to grow, both from an economic standpoint and from a population standpoint.”
The improvements would be large scale, and a definitive solution to the high rates of traffic congestion has not been determined yet.
Moreover, maintaining the existing highway and infrastructure along I-495 and I-270 is a heavy financial burden. Greg Slater of the Maryland State Highway Administration estimates a cost of about $1.7 billion for operational maintenance of the major corridors already in place.
“And that’s without any additional capacity or operational improvements; that’s simply just keeping the system up to date in pavement and bridges that are out today,” Slater said.
He also drew the council’s attention to the fact that $1.7 billion is money that the state does not have. To combat a financial issue like this one, the government would have to participate in Maryland’s Public-Private Partnership, or P3. The program would develop approaches to financing, design and maintenance of large-scale projects such as this one.
These sorts of partnerships are low risk for the state, according to Slater. Any risk associated with the project is absorbed by the private sector partner.
Possible solutions to the congestion issue are to put in managed lanes of travel that use directional restrictions or variable tolling, which helps optimize traffic flow. Councilmembers also suggested increasing the availability of public transit, to include monorail.
Drivers willing to pay a toll would have access to faster lanes of the highway, which in turn would relieve some congestion on the unrestricted lanes of travel. Highways designed like this are common and already exist in Maryland. The I-95 express lanes are an example, connecting Washington, D.C with Richmond, Virginia.
“The concern that I have, and that many have shared, is that those who choose to use express lanes sound like those who can afford to pay for them,” Coucilmember Andrew Friedson said. “and the risk that we run of Lexus Lanes, of hugely costly lanes, is an increase in those who can’t afford other transportation opportunities.”
Councilman Craig Rice echoed this concern for lower-income residents, who are subject to the same kind of traffic congestion but can’t afford the express toll lanes.
“The majority of these lower-income residents drive because there is no mass transit access,” he said. “So, you have many people who are driving very affordable vehicles who have stretched themselves by just affording those vehicles and they can’t afford to drive on those high-occupancy toll lines to get some place expediently.”
Major improvement on the highways will have an impact on the neighborhoods in the area as well. Adding travel lanes means widening the roads, which could impede on homes that are directly adjacent to the highways.
“It is truly very disheartening to hear about possible displacement when we heard a significant, clear promise from the governor that no one’s home or business would be taken,” said Councilman Sidney Katz. “And now we’re using terms like ‘minimizing (displacement)’”
Rahn explained that there will be penalties for project designs that require the relocation or displacement of homes to incentivize plans where there is no disruption.
“Our priority number one is to avoid the home,” Rahn said.
Another issue that Councilman Rice called to attention is the amount of community involvement from areas in the up county. He noted that the three public workshops, scheduled for April, are set to take place in Rockville, Bethesda and Silver Spring which forces concerned citizens in the northern part of Montgomery County to go out of their way to voice their opinion on the project.
“It’s puzzling to me as to why we wouldn’t have a public workshop for the location that would be, if incorporated, the second largest city in the state of Maryland,” Rice said, “and it’s right on the I-270 corridor.”
The installation of a monorail as a possible solution was brought up by the council to help mitigate the amount of traffic, especially one that would connect the up county with the Metro Rail System. But any concrete plans for improvements to mass transit for the up county other than the Metro’s Purple Line has not come to the forefront.
“I have not seen a presentation on the proposal for a monorail, however we are open to any transportation option that can pay for itself and be a no-net cost for the state,” Rahn said.
The project still has a number of steps to go through before any construction can begin. Public hearings, environmental impact studies and hiring contractors are still well in the future. Any changes to I-495 and I-270 aren’t set to begin until late 2020 and completion of the project isn’t expected until 2025.