Tuesday, September 25, 2012



The Montgomery County Council and staff have surveyed two of the nation's most notorious traffic snarls - the American Legion Bridge/I-495, and I-270.  They have examined these 7th and 8th Circles of Hell.  They've brought their infinite wisdom to bear on one of the biggest obstacles to attracting new employers to Montgomery County (traffic gridlock).

And they've concluded the answer is... carpools.

Apparently, on whatever planet, and in whichever dimension, these folks reside in, this makes perfectly plausible sense to them.

Reality can be harsh.

They've studied a problem that has two definitive causes:  the failure to build at least three additional Potomac River bridges, and the failure to build our master plan highway system.

And what they've proposed specifically, is this:  turn the shoulders of 495 between Tysons Corner and the 270 spur into HOV/bus lanes.  And take an existing lane of I-270, and designate it an HOV lane.

In the first case, they have not increased capacity for the majority of drivers, and they have proposed a solution that could actually create worse traffic jams, and reduce safety.

Very few people carpool or take the bus on the Beltway.  So moving those vehicles onto the shoulder would have virtually no impact on travel lanes.  What would happen, however, is that the frequent broken-down or fender-bendered cars would now have no refuge at the side of the road.  There's no shoulder to pull off to, under the council's scenario.

I happen to recall driving from Virginia into Maryland one afternoon rush hour, and seeing a broken-down school bus on the shoulder.  Had the council's plan been in effect, those children would have been out in the middle of interstate highway traffic.  Is that a situation the parents of Montgomery County can buy into?

In addition, if someone breaks down in that shoulder "lane," you would have a jam worse than ever, as all of the buses and carpoolers would have to change lanes to get around that disabled car.

At least they're not proposing to "steal" a lane there.  But further north on 270, that's exactly what their plan calls for.  They want to turn an existing lane into an HOV lane.  In other words, congestion will get worse, not better.  Have you ever been at a dead stop at the 270 spur, and noticed the HOV lane is essentially empty?   So we're all sitting here, just so some politician can say he's "green?"

Surprisingly, or not, local media had no critical questions to ask the council, despite the plan's patent absurdity.  Instead, we are treated to more Orwellian statements about 21st century solutions, and "getting people out of their cars," something no one besides Communist China has been able to do so far.

Traffic congestion will not improve whatsoever should the council implement both their HOV plan, and the equally laughable Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) proposal.  In fact, in both cases, traffic would be worse.

But gridlock could be all but eliminated, if we made a belated commitment to building our master plan highways:  The Outer Beltway, Rockville Freeway, M-83 Mid-county Highway Extended, Northwest Freeway, and the Northern Parkway.  And at least one new Potomac River crossing.

There is simply no way the council can add 85,000 new cars to our existing highway system, as they plan to do, when it can't even handle today's traffic.

It's fine if the council wants to delude themselves that we can bus and carpool ourselves out of this mess.  But citizens and the media should cease to indulge decisions that place ideology over reality and decades of traffic engineering research.

We have "leaders" telling us they're adding 100,000 new residents to the county, which means 85,000 new cars driven by people who will not ride transit under any circumstances.

How many master plan highways is that same council proposing to build in the next 10-20 years?

Zero.  None.

We can't go on like this.


Anonymous said...

Agreed. The solution is to build an outer Beltway. I fear I'll be old and grey by the time it happens though.

Robert Dyer said...

If we keep rewarding failure in our elected officials, your prediction is correct. Ironically, the Outer Beltway has been delayed so long, the drivers who were waiting for it in the 50s and 60s *are* "old and grey!" If they are still around, that is.

Gull said...

Just how do you plan to pay for building all of these freeways you want? And have you never heard of the idea of induced demand? These new roads will be gridlocked in 5-10 years (unless they are also toll roads like the ICC, which, honestly is very likely to be the case if any new major highway is built, especially another Potomac crossing). The real congestion issue is VA has a disproportionate number of jobs and MD has a lot of the housing for the VA jobs. No amount of highway building will fix that issue. I don't agree with the plans for HOV as proposed above, however with the effort VA is putting into their HOT lanes, having an HOV option over the river and connecting with the 270 western spur is not a bad idea. If those HOV lanes went somewhere useful i'd bet more people would take them. Right now however they're just a few miles along 270 with no real destination for an end point. Some money should be spent to add a real additional lane for the HOV and connect Tysons to Clarksburg with a continuous HOV lane.

Robert Dyer said...

You have more common sense than the council plan, because you propose adding a lane for HOV. And why not then make it a HOT lane, so the rest of us can pay to use it during traffic jams. That would at least help, although it would not solve the 495/270 congestion.

I've heard of induced demand, but have never seen a convincing study to support the theory. In the DC area, for example, it's popular to say "they built the Beltway, and it was jammed immediately." But what they don't mention, is that I-95 was originally supposed to go through the District, and that through-traffic is instead loaded onto 495, causing jams. They don't mention that the Outer Beltway was never built, with the same 495 congestion resulting. Induced demand tends to be a red herring that more accurately expresses the fear of politicians in DC, MoCo, etc., that middle class folks could buy a McMansion in Frederick or Fredericksburg, and commute easily into work. Then, they would have to cut their Draconian taxes and regulations to compete.
Along with those MoCo taxes and regulations, it is traffic gridlock - and lack of access to Dulles Airport - that is precisely responsible for Virginia having more jobs than Maryland.
How would I pay for highways? The same way I-69 is being paid for in Indiana right now, and how Fairfax County paid for completion of the Fairfax County Parkway: federal funds. MoCo pols like to say there's no federal money. But the dirty little secret is, they've never asked for any! You have to put a highway into your master plan in order to qualify for federal funds, and MoCo has actually deleted every freeway from its master plan (!!). The Outer Beltway MoCo segment/bridge, and the Rockville Freeway would easily qualify for federal money, when you examine the criteria they use in awarding them. How about we take the $2B BRT budget, the $99M Clarksburg bus depot budget, and the $72M developer tax cut, and get out there and build some freeways?

Gull said...

There has been preliminary study of adding HOT lanes to 270 between the Beltway and Frederick, and it would cost almost $4 billion dollars, and I see no private company jumping to start that kind of project, and why should we as a County/State make it easier to fly in and out of Dulles airport, when we have BWI, and wasn't the point of the ICC to help reduce long term east/west congestion in the County, and help the 270 business corridor more quickly get to BWI? People complain that it's expensive, but i'd almost guarantee it's cheaper than the HOT lane tolls per mile will be on the Beltway in VA, and will very soon be cheaper than the Dulles Toll Road. Gridlock is as bad or worse in VA than MD right now, so I don't think that alone is pushing jobs to VA. Taxes and regulation are probably much more to blame, which is an argument to have, but not over highway capacity.

Another thing to consider, Montgomery County would have little to do with the construction of most of the new roads you mention, except for the mid-county highway, as they all would likely fall under SHA purview, and the State has constrained financial resources, and its very likely the Federal Govt will be in a similar situation. Federal money for new projects is limited, and is a competitive bid process, requiring State and Local match in money, otherwise the Federal annual handout is supposed to be mainly for maintenance work. Sure, the County could chip in some money to get things done, but they already are paying money to advance projects like the Georgia Ave/Randolph Rd interchange, they front funded the Rockville Pike/Montrose Pkwy interchange, and are front funding the design and engineering of the Watkins Mill/270 interchange. The traffic problems in this County are not likely to be solved by any new major internal road upgrades, the only serious problems are north/south along 270 and the Beltway to/from VA. How much wider can we really make 270 from Gaithersburg to the Beltway, it's already 6 lanes wide in each direction. Sure, we should extend the 4th lane configuration north from 118 to Father Hurley, and a 3rd lane is sorely needed at least to Clarksburg and long term north toward Frederick, but maybe that traffic should be seen as an opportunity cost to moving to Frederick. The people on 66 and 95 in VA sit through equally horrible traffic every day.

I applaud MoCo for pushing future development into the lower half of the County with a continued focus on SS, Bethesda, and a new focus on places like Wheaton, White Flint and unincorporated areas around the 'lifescience' cluster of Rockville. I think it's a good idea to at least be planning a BRT network (the entire network is a bit ridiculous, but most of the routes identified in phase 1 I think hold a lot of merit for at least some sort of upgrades to increase bus usage.), and lets move forward with the Purple Line. Part of what makes Bethesda so great, giving you a blog in the first place, is because of its proximity to DC, the Metro access, and the mix of uses in the area not needing reliance on the congested freeways of the entire DC region. I'd identify myself as a pro urbanist and a pro transit person, and i'm also willing to agree there is some need to fix the road capacity issues, but i'm very much against massive capitol projects on the scale of the ICC again, and would rather the limited resources we have be focused on re-planning our community to not be so reliant on mega-highways.

Robert Dyer said...

I am also a supporter of transit, and believe it is an important part - like bicycles - of a multimodal approach to transportation. But I oppose the Fantasy Island, transit-only approach the council is taking. They've never been able to "get people out of their cars" in large numbers, and you've got to prove you can do that before basing planning around that theory.

I just fundamentally disagree regarding MoCo planning, and highway funding. Again, we haven't even applied for federal funds. And applying the federal requirements such as time savings, and number of persons moved, the Rockville Freeway and Outer Beltway would easily qualify for funding. The Rockville Freeway could be built for less than half the cost of BRT, and would move more commuters per day than the entire BRT system! Frankly, there's no way the county and city of Rockville can build what they're proposing on the Pike without the Rockville Freeway.

As far as planning, the county has done a horrific job over the last decade. They actually have not concentrated on Bethesda and Silver Spring. No one seems to grasp the difference between edge cities like Bethesda and Silver Spring, and bedroom communities like Rockville and Wheaton. They keep approving short buildings near Metro here in Bethesda, and taller ones in White Flint. It's a basic fact that Metro service degrades by distance, so why are they shifting density from an urban area close to DC like downtown Bethesda out the Pike? Now they're building cities in the country like Science City and Olney, and they're going to financially penalize Bethesda and Silver Spring residents to subsidize that sprawl with BRT taxes. Do higher taxes encourage people to live closer to " the core" in Bethesda and SS? None of this sounds like Smart Growth to me. A tallest building of 19 stories in Bethesda, but taller ones further out? Not smart growth.

BRT goes 15 miles in 50 minutes, which doesn't pass the laugh test.

The ICC only got built because Konterra needed it to build. The BWI concerns are mostly in Baltimore and among pols in Annapolis. Why should our county's economy suffer for their sake? I spoke to a county businessman in 2010, who confided that his company is terrified about what will happen once the Dulles Metro is finished. He said international businesspeople will fly in to Dulles, zip over to his N. Va. competitors on Metro, close the deal, and fly out the same day. International business wants Dulles access, we just have to acknowledge reality. Plus, that would open up a new airport hotel market in the 270 corridor, meaning more revenue for us.

So I think we are in agreement on some principles, but differ in our assessment of the county's record and approach. It would be great if we could have civil debates like this at the official level, rather than the one-sided process playing out now on the council.