2021 | Transportation

Projections in new study show more traffic with toll lanes on Beltway, I-270

Report maintains that Hogan’s proposal would relieve congestion

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A new study projects heavier traffic in 2045 — but less congestion — under Gov. Larry Hogan’s proposal to add toll lanes to portions of interstates 495 and 270 in Montgomery County.

Data supporting those conclusions are included in the 288-page report, which was released on Friday.

The report asserts that the presence of toll lanes would create a reason for more vehicles to travel on the road, leading to more traffic overall. However, it states that the higher traffic volume could be accommodated by the added lanes, and that without toll lanes, drivers would instead use local roads to avoid congestion.

In September 2017, Hogan proposed widening the two interstates to install High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes to reduce traffic congestion. The project has been met with fierce opposition from Montgomery County officials and residents due to concerns over the cost and the environmental effects, among others.

In May, the Maryland Department of Transportation removed the portion of the Beltway east of the I-270 interchange from the plan. The first phase of the project, estimated at about $6 billion, includes rebuilding the American Legion Bridge and building two HOT lanes in each direction from the bridge to the interchange between I-270 and I-370.

In August, the state’s Board of Public Works voted 2-1 to approve a pre-development contract with Accelerate Maryland Partners, a coalition of private companies that will work with the state on engineering and design work. The coalition includes the toll operator, Australia-based Transurban.

At that meeting, the board also approved a lease between the State Highway Administration and the Maryland Transportation Authority.

Friday’s report, published by the State Highway Administration and Federal Highway Administration, is an update to the draft environmental impact statement released in July 2020. The previous study looked at six possible widening scenarios for interstates 495 and 270, but did not indicate a “preferred alternative.”

The study released Friday gives estimates for traffic, speed and congestion in 2045 on the two interstates, both if no toll lanes are added (“no build”), and if the current plan (“preferred alternative”) is executed.

According to the report, in 2045:

  • The section of I-270 between I-370 and Md. 28 would have about 274,000 vehicles per day under the no build scenario and 277,000 with the preferred alternative.
  • The section of I-270 between Md. 28 and the 270 spur would have about 308,000 vehicles per day under the no build scenario and 311,000 with the preferred alternative.
  • The American Legion Bridge would see about 285,000 vehicles per day under the no build scenario and 309,000 with the preferred alternative.
  • The section of the Beltway between Md. 190 and the I-270 spur would see about 289,000 vehicles per day in the no build scenario and 317,000 with the preferred alternative.

The report states that the highways would be able to accommodate the increased “latent demand” with the toll lanes.

Ben Ross, the chair of the transit advocacy group Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition, said there is an appendix to the report projecting that with the widening, fewer cars would use the ramp from I-270 to Wisconsin Avenue to travel south into Bethesda during morning rush hour, compared to without the widening.

Ross told Bethesda Beat on Friday that the state’s projection is “nonsense.”

“So, they’re saying it’ll relieve congestion on 270. Well, if it’ll relieve congestion on 270, then that will cause more people to come down to Bethesda, not less,” he said.

Ross said that to some extent, he understands the state’s argument about less congestion despite more vehicles on the road in certain areas.

“That’s a reasonable thing to say. That’s gonna be correct in some places and not others. But then if they’re right that this is latent demand that’s adding more cars, why are there fewer cars that are coming down Wisconsin [Avenue] into Bethesda?”

The study also looked at how adding the toll lanes would affect speeds of drivers on the two interstates at morning and evening rush hour times.

It found that in 2045, during the morning rush hour, the average speed on the outer loop of the Beltway in the general purpose lanes between the I-270 spur to the George Washington Memorial Parkway in Virginia would increase from 33 miles per hour in the no build scenario to 52 miles per hour with the preferred alternative.

The average speed in the HOT lanes would be 56 miles per hour, it found.

The speed projections for the evening rush hour for the outer loop across the American Legion Bridge were not markedly different from the morning rush hour.

The projections for the inner loop across the bridge during the morning rush hour also did not differ that much from the outer loop at either time of day.

But the report found that the inner loop across the American Legion Bridge in the evening would see vehicles travel an average speed of 7 miles per hour in the general purpose lanes, regardless of whether toll lanes were added. Drivers in the HOT lanes on this stretch in the evening would travel at an average speed of 23 miles per hour at rush hour, if the plan were implemented.

The report states that adding toll lanes under the current proposal would increase speeds, improve reliability and reduce travel times and delays “along the majority of I-495, I-270, and the surrounding roadway network compared to the No Build Alternative.”

It goes on to state that previous iterations of Hogan’s proposal that included the full 48-mile study area evaluated in the 2020 draft environmental impact statement would improve traffic congestion more than the current proposal that was scaled down in May.

“It was chosen based in part on feedback from the public and stakeholders who indicated a strong preference for eliminating property and environmental impacts on the top and east side of I-495,” the report states.

People can submit comments on the supplemental study through Nov. 15 at 11:59 p.m. either by sending an email to oplanesMLS@mdot.maryland.gov, submitting a comment online or sending a letter to the State Highway Administration.

Additionally, two virtual public meetings are scheduled for Nov. 1.

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com