Going Nowhere Fast
Our traffic is terrible. Will widening the Beltway and I-270 really help?
Up in the Air
The first urban monorail began operating in Tokyo 55 years ago, and monorails are now an established form of mass transit in more than 40 cities across five continents. But in this country they remain limited largely to airports and amusement parks.
“The only real monorail in the United States right now is in Las Vegas,” says Rockville developer Robert Eisinger, who is hoping to construct a monorail along Interstate 270 from Frederick to the Shady Grove Metrorail stop. If it works, the line could become part of a monorail network extending south to Bethesda as well as east and west beyond the county, he says.
Three years ago, Eisinger created a foundation to promote the idea, and personally invested $300,000 to underwrite a recently released ridership study by Cambridge Systematics in Bethesda. The Maryland Department of Transportation is conducting a further monorail study in conjunction with plans to widen I-270, and Eisinger has piqued the interest of some influential legislators.
“I think it’s unique enough that it could pull some people out of their cars just to ride on this thing,” says state Sen. Nancy King of Montgomery Village, who represents an up-county district where mass transit options are limited and is chairwoman of the budget and taxation committee.
Adds state Del. Kumar Barve of Rockville, chairman of the environment and transportation committee: “Americans tend not to like elevated trains. But elevated trains are noisy, and monorails aren’t. I think we need to seriously look at this proposal.”
Eisinger is proposing a 28-mile route between Frederick and Shady Grove that would stop in Urbana, Clarksburg (at the former Comsat campus), Germantown and Metropolitan Grove. He estimates the trip from Frederick to Shady Grove would take 39 minutes.
Eisinger once owned property near the route but says he doesn’t now. “I have no skin in this game at all,” he says. “To a large extent, I’m trying to fix this for my grandchildren.”
In his view, the monorail’s key advantages include its ability to fit within a public right-of-way—avoiding the need to take significant property—as well as a limited environmental footprint. The elevated railway would be supported by concrete piers spaced 100 to 120 feet apart, with the issue of storm water runoff “almost nonexistent,” Eisinger says.
The Cambridge Systematics study puts daily ridership as high as 32,800 in 2025, and as high as 47,600 in 2045. According to estimates provided to Eisinger by Cambridge Systematics, nearly one-third of the 2045 ridership—about 14,000—represents vehicles that would be removed from the congested I-270 corridor.
Eisinger says a one-way $5 fare between Frederick and Shady Grove would more than cover operating costs. How to pay for the estimated $3.4 billion price tag to build it remains under discussion. “There are numerous pieces to the financing puzzle; there is no one answer,” he says, suggesting a combination of public and private financing would be needed.
While Eisinger contends that the per-mile cost of building a monorail would be significantly less than heavy or light rail, mass transit advocates such as Ben Ross, a Bethesda resident who chairs the Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition, believe the state should study all three options. His group has long advocated the construction of a third track to expand passenger service from Frederick via the MARC (Maryland Area Regional Commuter) Brunswick line that runs through Montgomery County. “It would be wrong to invest…$3 billion or anything like that without taking a serious look at the alternatives,” Ross says.
Louis Peck has covered politics extensively at the local, state and national level for four decades. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.