A Transportation Q&A: Elrich Talks Highways, Tolls, Buses and More

A Transportation Q&A: Elrich Talks Highways, Tolls, Buses and More

A story about Montgomery County traffic is in the November/December issue of Bethesda Magazine

| Published:
Elrich Aug. 6

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich

File photo

Editor’s note: In conjunction with a story on traffic congestion in the November/December issue of Bethesda Magazine, County Executive Marc Elrich discussed a variety of transportation-related issues of relevance to Montgomery County during an extensive interview in August with Louis Peck. Below is an edited version in Q&A format.

Bethesda Beat: Earlier this year, the state Board of Public Works — at Gov. Larry Hogan’s urging — went ahead on the I-495/I-270 widening project, but opted to move first on adding toll lanes to the southern section of I-270. The governor’s plan has been criticized for not also including the portion of I-495 from the junction with I-270 to the American Legion Bridge in this phase. What are your thoughts on this change in the proposal?

Elrich: [The Board of Works’] action is completely meaningless. It wouldn’t have any effect on anything because, for a very short distance, theoretically you’d move — but that doesn’t do anything to affect the backup from the bridge. All you’re doing is moving some number of people to the back of a line that’s already queueing, and that keeps queueing. And then, in the reverse direction, you’re [adding] a bunch of lanes that will very quickly narrow down to fewer lanes, and that’s terrible traffic movement.

I don’t understand what [Hogan] was thinking. Maybe he thought that all of his opponents would celebrate this, and he’d be able to point out, “Well, they’re celebrating something that has no effect on anything. I told you they weren’t interested in a solution.” I actually said that to one of his aides.

When [former County Executive Doug] Duncan had his transportation task force in 2002 that I was on, the environmentalists and I both supported more capacity on the western part of the Beltway going to the bridge. Everybody could look at that and say, “You need to do something” … The irony is [Hogan] is the first governor who’s actually sort of had a plan … to do something [on I-270 and the Beltway]. And I feel like he threw an idea out there without having the idea well-researched.

It’s good to have a bold vision, but the vision has got to be implementable. If he doesn’t start soon, none of this is going to happen in his term.

BB: To avoid widening the relatively narrow portion of I-495 east of I-270 through Bethesda and Silver Spring, you joined other county officials in asking the state to study an alternative to route traffic from the north along the Intercounty Connector and then down I-270 to the American Legion Bridge. You were a leading opponent of building the ICC. Do you see some irony here?

Elrich: No. When we were analyzing the ICC, one of the criticisms was that if the volume of traffic that anybody dreamed of used the ICC, it created a giant mess when it got to 270 — because it wasn’t possible to go south [without being tied up in traffic]. So the fact they’re actually going to do something on 270 that gives you a reason to use the ICC makes more sense.

This looks at [the ICC] as “How does it fit into a major transportation link and how does it help cars actually avoid the Beltway?” — by taking [the ICC] over to 270 and then taking two reversible or dedicated lanes. Either way, there is going to be a substantial [time] savings for people.

When we raised this with the governor’s folks, they were less interested in the traffic relief than they were in the tolls. They were looking at the Montgomery County section [of I-495] from basically Wisconsin Avenue to I-95 to generate enough tolls to pay for what wouldn’t be generated in Prince George’s County and what they would need to do to [expand] the [American Legion] bridge. We tried to point out that you’d get tolls on 270 that you never got before. … The extra tolls you’ll get on 270 is kind of the tolls you’d be collecting on 495 otherwise.

BB: You said the alternative route would mean substantial time savings. But wouldn’t using the ICC add about 10 miles as compared to the current I-95/I-495 route to the American Legion Bridge — even if more lanes on I-270 would help speed up the trip?

Elrich: You have to do both. People will go out of their way. Bypasses are not unusual — like the Beltway, for example (chuckles), an enormous free bypass rather than going through the city.  Conceptually, it’s no different than other bypasses that are a little bit longer but much faster.

And [there is] the amount of money they would save. … [State officials] only talked about [the ICC alternative] as “Oh, my God. We’re going to lose these revenues [from I-495].” Look at the Beltway from I-95 to Wisconsin Avenue. If you don’t have to move the train tracks and the other bridges — the Northwest Branch bridge is not going to be an easy bridge to add to — and don’t take as much property, you don’t need as much toll money.

BB: Large highway projects in recent years have sparked a debate over “induced demand” — with critics contending new or expanded roads entice more people to drive, with the end result being the same level of traffic congestion despite increased highway capacity. Do you agree?

Elrich: I believe in induced demand, and I believe if you provide a faster route from someplace, you’re going to pick up traffic that uses it. But it also means that you never look at a transit solution.

By putting [a third] track on the MARC [Maryland Area Regional Commuter] lines, you could run bidirectional service and run it more like a subway during peak hours. It has the potential to pick up an enormous number of people from western Maryland and Pennsylvania who would get to D.C. pretty quickly. Look at the commuter trains in New York and other places. They get heavily used because people don’t want to sit on the stupid roads all day long.

You always end up bypassing a transit solution as soon as you add lanes — and this is another example of it. If your road trip is quick — which is increasingly hard to provide anybody — then you’re not interested in transit. But when the road trip is miserable, and there are transit alternatives, and you implement them, then you get better ridership. And you don’t have the money to do both, particularly with projects of this magnitude.

BB: Your comments echo those of transit advocates, who feel expanded commuter rail service on MARC’s Brunswick line could alleviate the congestion along I-270. Should this option be given a higher priority?

Elrich: [Former Gov. Martin] O’Malley had it in there [in a 2007 plan], but I think O’Malley wasn’t going to get around to it until the 2030s. That’s too late, particularly given the way the traffic kind of exploded. But when Hogan was pitching us to Amazon [as the site of that company’s second headquarters], part of their solution was another track on the MARC line: It lets you get dedicated commuter rail.

This is the part that I find odd. Amazon was very insistent that we deal with traffic. [Hogan’s] plan for Amazon to deal with traffic in this very same corridor — partly the Beltway and partly 270 — was this proposal to build all these bus rapid transit lines and to do the rail, and then make some improvements in how you access [Md.] 355 from the Beltway and 270. So, for Amazon, [the state] had a solution that would make most transit lovers drool.

I thought it was pretty significant because it would actually provide enough transit down our main artery that you could plausibly argue would be a traffic-reducing measure — and would offer people quality transit in a corridor where they’re stuck on a road that doesn’t function very well. And then he completely abandons it for this [I-495/I-270 widening] study. I don’t know why they didn’t build off the Amazon work and say “We’re going to do a bunch of this stuff.”

(Editor’s note: Asked to respond, Maryland Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn took issue with Elrich’s characterization of the effort to attract Amazon. “Maryland did not include a third track in the Amazon proposal,” Rahn said through a spokesman.)

BB: Throughout your political career, you’ve acquired a reputation as being skeptical about construction of new roads and highways. Does additional road-building in the county need to be considered?

Elrich: The Post ran an article where they quote 22 big business leaders in the region who said the biggest problem in this region is lack of a bus network. They didn’t say the lack of highways.

Montgomery County [is] not a city in the classic sense. I-95 in the southern states runs through the middle of cities, and there are these exits in the business district. You get off, pop down to a street in the business district and you do business.

The Beltway doesn’t function that way; it doesn’t go through the middle of the city. [I-]270 doesn’t go through the middle of the city. Try getting off at Georgia Avenue. Traffic backed up to the [CSX railroad] bridge when it was a one-lane exit. It hasn’t improved since they made it a double-lane exit.

One of the things I said to the governor was, “You can speed people to the exits, but you can’t get off at the exits. So if you’re doing a complete solution, help us on the BRT. Let’s get as many cars off the internal roads as we can, and then I can handle more cars getting on the internal roads.”

At the same time, there’s not another road you can build in Silver Spring. What are you going to do? Knock out the houses on Georgia Avenue? Wisconsin Avenue has the same problem: There’s nowhere to go. We’ve run out of any way to widen the roads. … People say “roads,” but you’re hard put to name a road you should build south of Rockville. So you’re kind of left with bus rapid transit.

BB: Before getting to your plans for BRT, could we talk about a couple of roads in Rockville and north — Montrose Parkway East in Rockville and M-83 between Gaithersburg and Clarksburg — that are the two remaining unbuilt major roads in the county’s master plan. You’ve opposed both. Why?

Elrich: [The plan for Montrose Parkway East] will create an unmitigated disaster on Veirs Mill Road — because Veirs Mill itself is impossible. I told [the Montgomery County Department of Transportation] that I want money in there to look at getting us over the railroad tracks, because it’s a hazard — and it bottles things up. On the other side of the railroad tracks … we’re looking at what we can do with some lane variances on Randolph Road. Maybe you make Randolph a five-lane road with a reversible lane.

We’re looking at doing the same thing on Wisconsin Avenue coming out of Clarksburg [in lieu of M-83]. There’s one place where it goes down to two lanes, which is ridiculous. Why the developers weren’t required to fix that is just mind-boggling. You’ve got hundreds of cars per lane that overload the road.

So can we widen that enough to get five lanes and have a reversible lane that goes south out of Clarksburg in the morning and north into Clarksburg in the evening? We’re looking at creative ways of trying provide lane capacity and running the BRT up [Md.] 355, so it can serve Gaithersburg and Germantown.

BB: You’ve been pushing for a BRT system since shortly after you were first elected to the County Council in 2006. What first attracted to you to this transportation mode?

Elrich: I started looking around at what other people were doing. I was biased toward trains, like many people were. I was like everybody else: “Buses, are you kidding me? This is backward.”

I started reading the literature on [BRT] and realized, if done right, they performed like light rail. The cost of construction was way lower per mile, not even close to the cost of a light rail if you do it right.

I wanted to solve the transit problems, because I wanted to be able to say, “OK, we can have more development, but you can have the development without making the urban cores inaccessible.” I believe that at the point they get terrible, we’ll wind up with people not finding this an appealing place to be.

Judging by what you’re hearing from the business community, they’re pretty much saying the same thing: “If you don’t invest in your transit infrastructure, we’re not coming — because nobody wants to sit through this stuff that we force people to sit through.”

So I was trying to be helpful — and I know a lot of people were really skeptical that I was trying to be helpful. I remember meeting with the Chamber [of Commerce], and one of the guys from the Chamber said, “Our guys have looked at it and it makes sense. We just want to know, why are you doing it?” (chuckles)

BB: The county’s master plan includes 10 BRT lines, three — Route 29, Veirs Mill Road, and Route 355 — now under construction or in the engineering stage. One obvious challenge for a BRT system is that to work at peak efficiency, it needs a dedicated lane in a road network that you’ve noted is already very constrained.

Elrich: I actually think a well-designed [BRT] system can be built on the existing roadways by taking out a lane. But people cannot fathom that you can remove a lane of traffic and not wind up making the situation incredibly worse.

I tell people it is a math problem: There are three lanes going south on most of our arteries, one of them has buses, and the one with buses carries the least amount of vehicles.

However many cars are using that lane is roughly the number of passengers you need to add to a bus system. So if I had 1,600 people using that lane in an hour during rush hour, I would need to have a bus system that could handle 1,600 people an hour. And if it could, you wouldn’t miss the lane — other than psychologically.

You can go around the country, and you’re starting to see people take back lanes and put in bus lanes only. D.C. is doing that in a limited sense. New York City did this, which shocked me. Given their congestion problems, you’d think, “Why would they do this?” It made it possible for them to speed buses through parts of Manhattan that you couldn’t speed buses through before.

To me, the best thing that could happen is if we did this on Wisconsin Avenue and D.C. did the same thing on their part of Wisconsin. We could run a bus straight down to the west side of D.C. and end up in Georgetown. I think there and on Connecticut Avenue are opportunities for dealing with the traffic — a lot of it trying to get into the District — in a way that makes our road network more pleasant.

BB: The Route 29 BRT line, which opens this spring, is being studied with an eye to the possible later addition of a dedicated bus lane down the center median. But, in the early stages, won’t it be operating in mixed traffic for much of the route?

Elrich: It is so bad coming into Silver Spring, or at least getting past the Beltway on 29, that with anything that’s in mixed traffic, people are going to say, “There’s no rapid in this.” So I told [the county Department of Transportation], “You can call it the Flash, but you can’t call it BRT until it’s actually BRT.” Because if people see this and think this is our idea of BRT, they’re going to say, “We don’t want it.”

BB: How quickly would you like to see all 10 BRT lines in the master plan become reality, and how do you pay for it at a time of limited new revenues? Some estimates put just the cost of a Route 355 BRT line — running 22 miles from Clarksburg to Bethesda — at up to $900 million.

Elrich: I think there are ways to do it less expensively. One of the things we’re talking about is not trying to design it and then having somebody build to our design, but let people compete to offer the best designs.

If you could figure out a decent financing scheme, I would try to do this in the space of five to 10 years. Virginia has successfully used transit taxing districts that basically impact commercial property. We could do that.

The only problem [is that] you would have to do what they did in Loudoun County, when they did the Silver Line transit taxing district. They drew out all the existing residential because they’re not the beneficiaries. The [developers] who … want to build tall buildings are the beneficiaries.

What I’d like is the ability to add a differential [tax] rate. This got messed up when [former County Executive] Ike [Leggett] actually asked for it [from the Maryland General Assembly]. People immediately figured this was a scheme to let the developers out of paying for it. If I went back to that route and tried to get legislation, I would make it clear that my goal was not to tax existing residential.

BB: What about an independent transit authority, which was also floated with the state legislature and ultimately withdrawn during the Leggett administration?

Elrich: You’d still run into the taxing issue, and I don’t want to confront people with “Let me give you an unelected taxing authority.” I think people would be very uneasy with that, which is unfortunate. But it’s the climate that’s gotten created — and you’ve got to deal with the climate that’s been created.

BB: How hopeful are you that a BRT system will make a significant dent in traffic congestion going forward — given projections by regional planners that congestion will increase sharply over the next quarter-century, despite both new road and mass transit projects coming on line?

Elrich: Congestion is not going to end, but you can make it so that it’s not totally hellacious — and we borderline on hellacious. I do think you have to be realistic as to whether there are transit solutions for the problem we’ve created. And unless you’re willing to wait 40 years for people to all telecommute, there aren’t any short-term transit or traffic solutions — particularly traffic solutions — that are going to fix the problems in the county.

It’s the problem of a booming area that never took transportation seriously. Whoever designed [Metrorail’s] Red Line never thought about it as serving Montgomery County. When I was younger, it was referred to as the White Flight Line — affectionately and not affectionately. It was meant basically to bring people to federal jobs in the District. It was never meant to foster development in Montgomery County or improve connectivity — as a true transit system would do.

The huge mistake the county made [is that] they should have taken the D.C. street grid and extended the grid through the county. Because then you’d have a ton of north-south streets and east-west streets, and it would be easy to get around.

We made it impossible. We’re nowhere on a grid [and] we’re not a city,  so people don’t have the multitude of alternatives you would for moving around if this was truly an urban area. It just makes it harder to develop alternatives, and that’s where we get stuck.

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