Going Nowhere Fast
Our traffic is terrible. Will widening the Beltway and I-270 really help?
The cost for the more ambitious plans along Route 355 is estimated in preliminary planning documents at $500 million to $900 million, contingent on how much of the route includes dedicated lanes. Elrich and Roshdieh both express confidence that modifications in the design and construction process can bring those estimates down.
Under state law, the county has a mechanism to underwrite the BRT system by establishing transportation taxing districts. But the law currently does not enable the county to levy different tax rates on residential and commercial properties, leaving Elrich with the politically touchy task of drawing district lines in a way that would place the burden on businesses.
“Virginia has successfully used transit taxing districts that basically impact commercial property,” Elrich says. “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 residential because they’re not the beneficiaries: The [developers] who…want to build tall buildings are the beneficiaries.”
When she takes I-495 on her way to work, Randi Brecher often avoids the exit closest to her Silver Spring business as traffic can back up onto the Beltway waiting to get onto Georgia Avenue. “At the traffic light where I have to get off the exit onto Georgia Avenue, it can be ridiculous,” she says. “It’s not worth it to sit there and wait.”
According to the Montgomery County Planning Department’s latest Mobility Assessment Report, issued in 2017, Georgia Avenue inside the Beltway ranks as one of the county’s 10 most congested roadway corridors during the morning or afternoon rush hours. Seven of the 10 local roads with the worst traffic run between the Beltway and the D.C. line.
County officials worry that Hogan’s Beltway/I-270 plan will exacerbate the congestion on local roadways by limiting the number of exits from the toll lanes, thereby channeling traffic onto just a handful of north-south arteries. (Rahn counters that his department’s calculations show a slight reduction along these corridors as a result of the project.) But county officials also say there is virtually no space available to build or widen major arterial roads. “How can you widen Maryland 355? How can you widen Georgia Avenue?” Roshdieh asks. “Where it’s congested, there is no real estate [available]. And where we need it is not all the way north of Olney; we need it in downtown Silver Spring, and there is no opportunity for that or the cost will be astronomical because of the [land] value.”
The current dearth of major local road projects also reflects the preferences among those now in power in Rockville. The last outspoken advocate of road construction, former county Councilmember Nancy Floreen, left office last year due to term limits and was unsuccessful in a bid for county executive. The two major unbuilt roads currently in the county’s master plan, Montrose Parkway East in Rockville and the so-called “M-83” six-lane highway between Gaithersburg and Clarksburg, are both dormant, if not dead.
The roads versus transit debate also highlights a division between officeholders with political bases along the Beltway, who dominate county government, and up-county elected officials who tended to welcome Hogan’s P3 proposal, particularly given the limited options of constituents caught in traffic along I-270.
“For the inside-the-Beltway and near-the-Beltway folks, the challenge is that area is so built up that any expansion of roadways at all, whether it’s the Beltway or arterial roads, is really not possible—or it’s hugely expensive and hugely disruptive,” says Gaithersburg Councilmember Neil Harris. “So, despite the fact that most of the people in that region still take their cars to get to work and other places, the sentiment is that roads are not helpful. Whereas up here, where we’re past the end of the line of the Metro system, we don’t really have a lot of choice if we don’t do something about the roadways.”
In the 1980s, Robert Eisinger, head of Rockville-based Promark Partners, who is currently touting the construction of a monorail along I-270 (see story on page 74), sought to move the Montgomery County Airpark from Gaithersburg to Clarksburg. He put together a proposal for a “Maryland Corporate Air Center,” aimed in part at mitigating traffic congestion along the lower portion of I-270.
Explains Eisinger: “The whole theory behind this was that this was an employment center that was going to capture the traffic coming south on 270 and stop it from getting any further south,” while offering job opportunities closer to residential development in the northern portion of the county.
His plan died with changes in federal tax law in the mid-1980s. But more than three decades later it reflects a belief among planning officials that significant reductions in traffic congestion lie with land-use strategies. “We cannot build ourselves out of this congestion, we need to be examining where we are allowing growth to happen, and what type of growth is happening,” says COG’s Srikanth. Beyond steering development to places where transit is available, he says the goal is to create a situation where individuals can live within walking and biking distance of their jobs.
Looking ahead to 2045, Srikanth adds: “Our plans indicate three-fourths of the new employment will be in regional activity centers. We believe more than two-thirds of all of the new population will be in such centers. …These are mixed-use, high-density places where people can live and work and shop and go to entertainment in the same place—like Bethesda, for example.”
But Harris is skeptical that such a vision can be realized. “We’re doing a long-range visioning project in Gaithersburg, and the very distressing news was that while we have 40,000 jobs in Gaithersburg, only 3,000 people [both] live and work in Gaithersburg,” he says. “Most of the workers here are living in less expensive jurisdictions to the north. You can’t legislate that, you can’t plan that. And unless you figure out how to make housing more affordable, you can build houses wherever you want—and [people] are still going to make those decisions differently.”
Floreen, who spent eight years on the county’s planning board before holding elected office, sees the county’s hybrid nature at the heart of the challenge. “We are not dense enough to have these new-fangled urban solutions. And on the other hand, people would say we’re too dense to have the suburban lifestyle,” she says. “We’re kind of in the middle, and that is the ultimate problem with Montgomery County. We could never decide which way we wanted to go. So we took the middle road. Well, the middle road makes everybody mad.”