Going Nowhere Fast
Our traffic is terrible. Will widening the Beltway and I-270 really help?
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated online to reflect the decision by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam to widen the American Legion Bridge.
Six mornings a week, Randi Brecher drives 16 miles from her Gaithersburg home to her catering business in Silver Spring. On Saturdays, she makes the trip along Interstate 270 and the Beltway in 20 to 25 minutes. On weekdays, her rush-hour commute can take up to three times as long.
To avoid I-270, she sometimes takes Route 355, turns east onto Veirs Mill Road and then south onto Connecticut Avenue. She relies on apps such as Waze, but with mixed results. “Sometimes…I’ll put on the app before I get in the car and it will tell me 270 is fine. And then, when I get on there, it’s like a parking lot,” she says.
When possible, Brecher delays her commute until after the height of rush hour, leaving it to a member of her staff to open the business. Brecher says mass transit is not an option as she often must pick up supplies or make deliveries during the day. She wistfully summons Star Trek-style teleporting after a detailed recounting of her traffic avoidance strategies. “I go every which way and then some, short of ‘Beam me up, Scotty,’ ” she chuckles.
Brecher’s daily commuting challenges are shared by tens of thousands of Bethesda-area residents. According to the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA), an estimated average of 259,000 vehicles travel each day on I-270 between I-370 and the Beltway, along with the 253,000 vehicles that use the Montgomery County portion of the Beltway between the Virginia line and I-270. In fact, two recent surveys ranked the Washington, D.C., area as having the second-worst (in one survey) and third-worst (in the other) traffic nationwide.
And officials say that traffic and commuting times are going to get significantly worse unless Montgomery County and the Washington region address the problem—and perhaps even if they do.
SHA officials say daily traffic will jump to 282,000 vehicles on the Montgomery County portion of the Beltway between the Virginia line and I-270 and nearly 300,000 on I-270 by 2040—increases of 11 percent and 15 percent, respectively. If nothing is done, they say the 8.5-mile Beltway trip from the American Legion Bridge to the Connecticut Avenue exit could take an average of 73 minutes during the afternoon rush hour in 2040. That’s more than two and a half times the 28 minutes it typically takes today at that time, although SHA officials say traveling this leg of the Beltway currently can be highly variable during evening peak hours, ranging from a low of 20 minutes to a high of 45.
While that sounds bad, a forecast by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) is positively dire. According to COG, even if plans are approved to widen and add toll lanes to the Beltway and I-270, and to build at least six bus rapid transit lines in the county, weekday traffic congestion—as measured by delays in trips by car—will increase by an average of 25 percent throughout the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia region by 2045. Absent these initiatives, the projected increase in congestion would top 68 percent, COG says.
If it’s any consolation to drivers idling in traffic on the Beltway or in downtown Bethesda, the source of the problem in the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia region is much the same as in other major urban areas atop the traffic congestion lists. Blame it on growth and prosperity.
“…The economy-congestion linkage is as dependable as gravity,” concluded a recent Texas A&M University traffic study. Paul Lewis, vice president of the Eno Center for Transportation, a D.C. think tank, puts it bluntly: “Really, the best way to get rid of congestion is to collapse your regional economy.”
Since that’s not likely to happen, state and local officials are exploring ways to ease future congestion—or at least keep it from getting much worse.
Despite apparent agreement that a combination of road improvements and enhanced mass transit is necessary to combat the region’s traffic woes, the past year has highlighted stark differences in the transportation policy outlooks of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and the all-Democratic government of Montgomery County.
While contending that his administration “has invested more in transit than any other administration in the history of the state of Maryland,” Hogan said at a June meeting of the state’s board of public works—consisting of himself as well as state Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp—that “it is completely impossible to relieve the horrendous traffic congestion without taking action to increase the capacity on our roads as well.” During that session, a divided board gave the go-ahead to the first phase of Hogan’s ambitious initiative to widen the Beltway and I-270 utilizing toll lanes—a plan that has faced sharp criticism for doing little to make mass transit more accessible.
At one point during the board of public works session, Hogan sparred openly with Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich, who shares with most elected officials in the county a skeptical view toward road building. “I believe if you provide a faster route from someplace…you’re going to pick up traffic that uses it,” Elrich says later in an interview. “It also means that you never look at a transit solution; you always end up bypassing a transit solution as soon as you add lanes.”