Widening the Beltway: Where’s the Vision and Leadership?

Governor Larry Hogan proposes to widen the Capital Beltway by adding four (4) additional lanes to the Capital Beltway (I-495), and doing the same to I-270 and to the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. The added lanes would all be toll lanes, according to current plans. Mr. Hogan’s $9 billion plan is intended to lessen congestion.

Presumably once and for all.

It is so, so “1950s.” The entire proposal will prove to be a disaster for our region and well beyond. It may succeed in relieving congestion only for a brief few years. The plans, tragically, fly in the face of long acknowledged limitations of widening highways in dense urban areas.

The impact on Takoma Park and other communities inside the Beltway is obvious because every additional vehicle will, at some point, exit onto a major arterial. For us that means New Hampshire Ave, University Blvd and Colesville Rd (Rte 29) inheriting significantly more vehicle miles, thus more congestion.

The expansion will add to air pollution, more stormwater run-off, and contamination of our waterways and the Chesapeake Bay.

Critics have attacked Hogan’s plans because of the destruction of homes and businesses in its path. But that will be the very least of the impacts. 

Making matters worse, the Washington Post on April 20 editorialized in favor of Hogan’s plans, citing statistics that by 2040 “roughly 30,000 more vehicles will be using Maryland’s portion of the highway each day.” This fact, says the Post, is the impetus behind Hogan’s proposal. 

Let me digress here. 30,000 more vehicles? Really? How many is that? It works out to a single lane of cars, bumper to bumper, 114 miles long. That’s just a tad short of the distance from Takoma Park to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. I’m not kidding.

That’s all the reason we should NOT build more lanes. Who wants those cars?

But, back to the Post’s editorial that naively asserts: “Yes, the new lanes would have to be wedged into the Beltway’s narrow corridor in Maryland, meaning” . . . that along the 20 mile span . . . “as many as 34 homes and 4 businesses could fall victim.” The editors boldly assert, “That’s the stark trade-off: displacement, or inconvenience and diminished quality of life for some homeowners in return for massive improvement — in time saved and stress reduced — for hundreds of thousands of daily commuters. On that cold calculation, Mr. Hogan’s plan makes sense.” Quod erat demonstrandum! 

Alas, the Post is wrong. 

Worse still and inexplciably, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) supports Mr. Hogan’s planned highways. COG’s “Transportation Planning Board” includes the I-495 and I-270 projects in its “Visualize 2045 Plan.” Adopted October 2018, it stands as the National Capital Region Long-Range Transportation Plan. The Board’s seven primary visions include support for Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). Otherwise, it mostly just tinkers with the existing infrastructure. Visualize 2045 gives very little attention to the possibilities of extending rail lines, much less any new rails. Where is the vision and leadership?

The Capital Beltway is currently 8 lanes wide and more at interchanges. So, for a minute close your eyes and try to imagine 12 lanes and, of course, include the space for medians, dividers, shoulders and ramps. Oh, and add into your image the setbacks for sound barriers walls. Now, we have a space wide enough to land a Boeing 747. Imagine that space filled with lines of cars and trucks as far as you can see. 

To get real, drive along the Virginia Beltway through the Tysons area and the interchanges connecting to the Dulles Access Rd, Route 7 and I-66.

Virginia’s I-495 near the Interchange with Route 7
photo by Danya Smith for the Washington Post

Nominally there are 6 lanes in each direction including 2 toll lanes. But in actuality, there are 10 lanes in each direction because of wide shoulders and the many on-off ramps. Toll lanes require doubling the number of on-off ramps. This results in a distance from 300 to 400 feet between the sound barrier walls. You will see the popularly named “Lexus Lanes” for those who can afford the tolls. 

Dynamic tolling is scary. Under federal regulations, the toll price must be high enough such that speeds on express lanes do not fall below certain average speeds such as 45 or 55 mph. As the lanes fill up, traffic slows and this forces the tolls to rise in order to deter drivers. A little snow or a collision on the primary lanes forces drivers to use the Lexus Lanes. The higher the demand, the faster the tolls will climb to levels of $30 and more. 

As long as we add more lanes to ease congestion and make it practical to find parking at the destination, folks will drive and they are apparently willing to pay big bucks to do so. In 2017, rush-hour dynamic tolls were installed on I-66 through Arlington County. A current web site shows average evening rush tolls range between $8 and $10 one way. 

These marvels of highway engineering can be a pleasure to drive when traffic is rolling, but not at rush hour. Let’s also remember that all these vehicles have to exit onto our local roads.

Advocates for the expansion of Maryland’s commuter routes make the age-old argument that more lanes will accommodate more vehicles and thus ease, if not eliminate congestion. In a static world, that would make complete sense. But America’s major metro areas, like the Baltimore-Washington region, show no signs of stagnation.

As a Baltimore resident, I remember in 1971 the new I-95 opened connecting the Baltimore and Washington beltways. I was astonished by four lanes in each directions and the wide spans of bridges crossing over the new highway. And there was no traffic! It felt crazy. I thought about turning pirouettes in my VW bug just for fun. Why would anyone build such a ridiculously wide road? Who would ever use it?

In the old days, paths to DC included Route 1 and the B-W Parkway. The Capital Beltway in Maryland had only been completed in 1964 with mostly 3 lanes, which was generous. No wonder we all became convinced that wide, empty freeways were the future. 

Today, we all know that all the major commuter routes are “hit or miss” depending on the hour, weather, collisions, maintenance work and mysterious things that no one can explain. Certain bottlenecks and complete stoppages are predictable. Maryland’s portion of I-495 can seem like rush hour even at midday. 

Robert Caro’s biography of Robert Moses, possibly the most powerful municipal official in American history, who built most of NYC’s parkways and many of its parks, tunnels and bridges, shows Moses learned the hard way that the faster he built these freeways, the faster they clogged with vehicles. Moses sabotaged mass transit in his obsession with roads, which is why today there is no subway line to JFK Airport.

The truism is that in dense areas, a growing population inevitably nullifies the advantages of added lanes. Let’s face it, Americans instinctively love the advantages of self-mobility, whether it be on our legs, on a bike or a personal automobile.

For example, if one could drive the 5½ miles from Takoma Park to Bethesda (or back) at a reliable 35 mph (= 16 minutes), no one would have proposed the Purple Line. 

Governor Hogan and the Post imagine that adding four lanes to I-270, I-495 and the B-W Parkway will solve congestion once and for all. But it won’t because the region’s population will continue to grow for the foreseeable future. From 1990 until today Montgomery County’s population grew 38% to 1.06 million. The labor force grew 31% to 600,000. Jobs in the county expanded by 21%. Today the percentage of people driving alone to work is 65.3%. That’s just a meager 2.4% less than 1990.

Over the next 25 years, the county’s population is predicted to grow 17% (178,000 folks), Frederick Co. by 31%, Howard Co. by 19% and Anne Arundel Co. to our east by 18.5%. That adds up to almost 400,000 more people in those 4 counties alone. (I think these population projections are too conservative.)

Picture this: 20 years from now toll lanes have been installed, there are now 6 lanes in each direction on the Beltway; 30,000 more cars have been added to the scene; rush hours are worse than ever, especially for those who can’t afford exorbitant tolls. Now what do we do? Does the governor add more lanes?

The answer is we don’t do this. It’s not 2039. We can still make a choice today. The answers lie in rapid speed rail and exclusive bus lanes.

You say we can’t afford this? We cannot afford not to do this. It’s time America grows up and does what Europe, Japan and most industrialized countries have done, which is to bind the large and small cities together in a web of rails in concert with Europe’s well designed autobahns, motorways, autoroutes, autovias and autostradas that knit the nations together.

Here’s a fun factoid:

In Cologne, Germany the Hohenzollern Bridge across the Rhine River carries more than1,200 trains per day. This seems unimaginable to us, but it shouldn’t. I’ve seen this with my own eyes.

We need to have contiguous rapid inter-city rail (not light rail or commuter rail) between Washington and Baltimore (including BWI airport, which has become the busiest airport in the region). There’s none now. Also, we need rapid rail in the Route 50 corridor between Washington and Annapolis, and between Annapolis and Baltimore. The City of Frederick could be tied in via exclusive bus lanes. That means lanes exclusively used by 60-passenger buses so they are not ultimately stuck among cars. 

(Equally important, there needs to be a Potomac River rail crossing connecting Gaithersburg to Dulles and Chantilly – route 28 – in Virginia.)

Tying together the region’s four largest cities by rapid rail and bus transit is the only way to keep 30,000 more cars off our Beltway and to preserve woodlands along the B-W Parkway. The $9 billion Mr. Hogan wants to spend on highway widening should go to seeding the funding for the rail lines.

Governor Hogan thinks $9 billion will cure congestion. We wish! This is a gratuitous estimate. Giant public works at this scale inevitably exceed early estimates. This was the strategy Robert Moses employed: underestimate the projected costs, get the project well underway, announce huge “unforeseen” costs, and explain that it’s too late to stop now. 

Consider that every bridge over these highways will have to be rebuilt. In contrast, rapid rail between the cities can be built in or above the highway r-o-w’s. Or perhaps adjacent to the Amtrak and MARC lines. Few bridges will have to be modified. Destruction of pastures, farmland and homes will be minimized.

The Visualize 2045 report — to its credit — is not sanguine about the future of road congestion:

“Forecasts are mixed regarding future road use. Twenty-five years from now, the average person is expected to drive less than today. But population and employment will grow faster than the highway and transit systems will expand, and the resulting pressure on the system will accelerate congestion and crowding. As a result, some areas of the region will experience a reduction in the average number of jobs accessible by auto within a 45-minute commute.” (page 46)

In the 1950s leaders envisioned the 107-mile Metrorail system that was to be completed in the early 2000s, and it was. Why is there no visionary leadership today? Where are the voices?

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2 thoughts on “Widening the Beltway: Where’s the Vision and Leadership?

  1. Fred Schultz, I totally agree with you. I recommend that folks go to Cabe495.com to find out the latest. Tom Hucker is organizing a town hall this Sunday, May 5, 11-1 at the Civic Center. I encourage everyone to attend. The Board of Public Works makes a key decision on May 8 on this project.

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  2. This is great Fred – totally agree with you. My favorite line is “The answers lie in rapid speed rail and exclusive bus lanes.”

    Hope you and Nancy are doing well. Miss you brother!

    Like

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