Terrible Traffic on I-270 Creates Problems for Commuters

Going Nowhere Fast

Our traffic is terrible. Will widening the Beltway and I-270 really help?

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Rush hour out of Bethesda heading north on Bradley Boulevard. Photo by Skip Brown

Elrich is a longtime advocate of public transit, and his top transportation priority is building a bus rapid transit network of 10 lines. One of those lines, along U.S. Route 29, is under construction and is scheduled to open in 2020. Two others, which would run along Route 355 from Clarksburg to Rockville, and Veirs Mill Road from Rockville to Wheaton, have received funds for planning, but not for construction. No funding has been approved for the other lines.

The $2.4 billion-plus light-rail Purple Line, which is under construction and will run between New Carrollton and Bethesda, is expected to ease traffic along local roads, in particular East West Highway, but provide little relief for the Beltway.

Coming up with solutions to the area’s traffic woes is complicated by the advent of self-driving vehicles, as well as population and demographic trends, and driving and living habits.

Former Montgomery County Councilmember Roger Berliner, who headed the council’s transportation panel for eight years, says Hogan’s road-widening proposals are “a 20th century solution to a 21st century problem.” He adds: “Within years of when this project would be completed, we’ll have autonomous vehicles. And there are many studies that autonomous vehicles alone double your [highway] capacity.”

But Maryland Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn says that the time frame for and the impact of self-driving vehicles remains in question. “We can anticipate that there are going to be changes in how vehicles operate from the standpoint of whether they’re [autonomous],” Rahn says. “That technology is going to come in over a period of time. But the experts are split as to whether…autonomous vehicles will increase miles traveled or decrease them.”

For vehicles with drivers, it is estimated by COG that the average number of vehicle miles traveled per person will be 3 percent less in 2045 as compared to now, a statistic that Kanathur Srikanth, COG’s director of transportation planning, terms “stunning.” But that drop in per capita car use will be more than offset by the increase in the Washington area’s population, which is forecast by COG to grow by 23 percent by 2045, bringing the total regionwide population to more than 6.9 million.

Srikanth also points out COG projections that vehicles with just one occupant will decrease between now and 2045, while carpooling as well as getting to work via mass transit, walking and biking will increase. Nonetheless, a majority of commuters, an estimated 56 percent, will still rely on single-occupancy vehicles in 2045 (down from 61 percent currently).

“So, the glass is half full if you look at it, but the reality is that the glass is also half empty,” he says. “This is still going to result in a 25 percent increase in congestion.”

Adds the Eno Center’s Lewis: “Thinking about it as how do we cut congestion is wrong, because it’s a fool’s errand to try and fix that. The way to think about transportation is how do we provide people with options that aren’t just in their car alone—and how do we increase access so that people can access more things with these different options.”

Amy Thaler has owned her house in Bethesda’s Locust Hill Estates neighborhood for five years. “I bought the property because of the large yard,” she says. When the state highway administration released an impact study of the Beltway widening last spring, it identified as many as 34 homes that might have to come down. While Thaler’s home was not among them, the project would practically reach her back door, taking all but 5 feet of her yard. “How on earth can you come in and do this to my property and say you’re not going to take my house?” Thaler wonders, describing herself as “sitting in limbo.”

Thaler has been raising guide dogs for two decades. “Many weekends, I have 10 to 12 puppies that come over to play,” she says. These “puppy rumbles” in her yard are aimed at socializing future guide dogs being nurtured by Thaler and other trainers. Though the Beltway is just a short distance away, “I have quite a large yard, and it’s far enough back that [the noise level] is not that bad,” she says. At one meeting for property owners, she was told by state officials that there would be no replacement for the existing sound barrier during a construction period that could stretch for 18 months or more.

“I bought the property knowing the Beltway was right behind my house,” she says. “I did come to the nuisance, but the nuisance is coming a whole lot closer than ever imagined.”

Related story: 

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

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