The Train to Rehoboth Beach

Ask yourself: When was the last time you rode a train (not counting the Metro)? Unless you commute on the MARC or VRE systems, it’s not likely you have or will anytime soon. We all know why.

Outside of North America, I’ll wager that in every other industrialized country in the world, passenger trains are a prominent, if not the preferred, means of regional travel. 

Imagine – if you will – taking a train to Ocean City or Rehoboth Beach and back again. (No Bay Bridge backups.) Imagine a fast trip to the capital in Annapolis. (No problems parking.) And then from Annapolis to Baltimore. How about frequent, reliable connections to Baltimore, Frederick, Fredericksburg, Leesburg, Charles Town and Charlottesville?

Large, high density metropolises like New York, Chicago, Boston and all across Europe and Asia have extensive rail services that radiate 40 to 60 miles into the countryside, interconnecting with towns and supplemented by bus lines. In Europe, a spaghetti of rail lines makes it possible to practically “go anywhere” any day in the region. Here’s a taste of the spaghetti: Cologne’s Hohenzollern Bridge over the Rhine handles 1,200 trains per day. I saw it for myself.

Unlike roads, rail service responds easily to population growth and seasonal shifts by adding or subtracting cars and service frequencies. 

Changes in our dependence on the automobile, a warming climate, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the ubiquity of video conferencing have converged to shift how we conduct our lives. The at-home/at-work boundary is totally blurred. Leisure time too.  Consider.  Where we are physically at any given moment matters less and less than at any time in human history. In a sense, these days we can be in two places at once. We can be at home and at work at the same time. We can be on vacation on an island or a ski lift and remain on the job. We can be traveling abroad and be “with” anyone we need to. 

Our reliance on cars consequently is diminishing. Families may be choosing to own one less car. In terms of the global climate, this is a good thing of course. Recently in Fort Myers, Florida an area of retirement communities, sprawling suburbs and shopping malls, I saw an abundance of battery-charged “golf carts” on streets and even golf-cart dealers selling these things. 

Despite these evident trends, in Maryland and the “DMV” area, one gets the feeling it’s still the 1990s. Governor Hogan pursues his ambitions to dramatically widen I-270 and the American Legion bridge, as well as I-495 (the Maryland portion of the Beltway) by adding two High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes in each direction to relieve congestion. I-270 already has seven lanes in many sections. Picture each exit requiring double entrance and exit ramps with flyovers. Every crossover bridge will have to be lengthened. 

The estimated cost started out in 2019 at $9 billion and has now moved up to $11 billion. For comparison purposes, the literal design, land acquisition and construction of the 16-mile Purple Line was to have cost about $2.4 billion. 

The argument in favor of adding lanes is the region’s projected growth and already congested commuter routes. The Washington Post sadly has editorialized in favor of Hogan’s plan. Maryland has a governor in love with roads. He says so and his actions bespeak it.

Let’s recall in 2015 Governor Hogan killed the $2.9 billion Red Line in Baltimore which would have served the Black neighborhoods, which to this day remained embittered. Hogan said the State could not afford it. That project, which was further along than the Purple Line, was to have been completed in 2020. Hogan left 900 million in Federal dollars on the table. Black Lives Matter would not let him get away with this today.

Maryland officials say the road widenings will not cost taxpayers anything because it will pay for itself from tolls.  It was recently announced that it will cost $2 billion alone to relocate the underground storm water systems. Like the Purple Line, Mr. Hogan intends to build and operate the completed project through a “P-3” mechanism (public private partnership). This clever approach has private companies finance, build, operate and own the rail line because it’s supposed to be cheaper and faster to do it that way. The Purple Line broke ground in August 2017 with the promise it would be done in 2022. The contractor quit last year and work has all but stopped. At 40% completion, Maryland’s DOT candidly confesses no earthly idea when the project will be completed. So much for a P-3.

As with any massive public project the engineers and elected officials obviously have to convince taxpayers the project is needed, rational and affordable. And, that there is no better alternative. The inherent fallacy is that it’s humanly impossible to project the true costs, the duration of work and whether the outcome will achieve its promise. The reality? Once construction gets underway, it’s too late. It’s “Katy bar the door” by that time, as they say. I can hear it now. “But, but you said [fill in the blank].” 

Experience with road widenings around the world tells us that inevitably empty lanes attract more cars. The project has met opposition from many quarters, which I’m not repeating here. Instead, I pose questions that should challenge most peoples’ credulity. 

➤     What are the chances the project will greatly exceed cost estimates?  

➤     Is it wise to have a profit-driven organization determine toll rates?

➤     What happens if toll revenue is not large enough to carry the billions in debt?

➤     Do you really believe we will get all this with “no net cost” to the taxpayers?

➤     What happens if the P-3 partnership breaks down à la the Purple Line?

➤     Suppose the expanded lanes get re-congested in five years, then what?

➤     To get across the Potomac, do we really want an all-of our-eggs-in-a-one-basket 12-lane American Legion bridge?

More to the point, instead of spending, say $20 billion to do widenings — a solution whose outcome is seriously problematic — and is utterly antithetical to President Biden’s climate goals, we should be planning rapid rail lines either alongside of or elevated above I-270 to Frederick, and Route 50 to Annapolis.  In other words, it is time to stop this scheme dead in its tracks and shift to a whole new paradigm. Covid-19 has changed the world and Climate Change is upon us. There is still time. 

Whether the American Legion Bridge gets widened or not, imagine for a moment an elevated high-speed train from Rockville zipping above the western Montgomery County Agricultural Reserve and crossing the Potomac River into Leesburg, Front Royal and Harrisonburg with transfers along the way to Arlington, Winchester and Charlottesville. 

We have enough roads. More roads are never going to get us to our destination any faster than they do today.