Image by Neil Flanagan.

In the 1950s, repeated freeway building and widening appeared to be the obvious, logical direction for public policy. Planners, elected officials, and newspaper editorial writers were united around the goal of pushing the population into ever-newer, ever-more distant subdivisions while older small towns were bypassed or razed and inner cities crumbled.

Zoning laws and parking requirements ensured that newly settled areas looked like the prototypical suburban development. It was an era when “progress” meant replacing all that was old with something new. Energy was virtually free, land seemingly limitless, and there was no problem engineers couldn’t solve within a decade.

Now, after we almost irrevocably damaged our planet, read Jane Jacobs, and witnessed mounting obesity, most people realize that GM’s Futurama isn’t the right vision for all of our new communities. Low-density suburbs have their place, but aren’t the only place. Empty nesters and young people want to live in walkable places, either in condos in denser districts or in houses close to centers with transit, as in Arlington.

Two-hour commutes are common, and families where both parents work, often in places many tens of miles apart, are fed up with all the driving. The more freeways we build, the worse traffic becomes. Transit, transit-oriented development, and Smart Growth have become phrases that almost every planner and politican utters, no matter what their plan.

There are people, however, who spent decades lobbying for the endless extension of 1950s suburbia, who simply don’t recognize that there can be any other way. To them, economic prosperity means more of the same.

Rich Parsons is one of these people. He used to head the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, and headed government relations for the Greater Washington Board of Trade. He’s now lobbying hard for the $4 billion “Sprawlway” project to widen I-270, and wrote to Montgomery County state Senators, trying to stop them from signing on to Brian Frosh’s letter recommending Maryland study a transit alternative.

From his exasperated letters, it’s apparent that he just can’t conceive why anyone wouldn’t want more roads leading to more distant houses and more strip malls covering more of the state of Maryland. Further, he apparently can’t believe that economic vitality could actually come from a different pattern of growth.

Parsons’ central argument boils down to this: Since we’ve always grown by highways and sprawl, we have no choice but to continue. Most people drive today in the area; therefore, we need to keep developing so that new people drive.

[Frosh] is incorrect in asserting that the expansion of I-270 is anything new in this corridor study. ... In fact, widening I-270 north of Shady Grove Road is already part of Montgomery County’s officially adopted 10-year transportation plan (and has been for many years, since around 2002, I believe). ... Besides, last time I looked at the current MARC ridership, it was underperforming estimates and the current rush hour service was underutilized.

He’s saying that Maryland should build the project because it’s on some map from a long time ago. Since planners a decade ago were thinking about freeways, so must we. And since not many people use MARC, we shouldn’t fix it. Actually, not many people take MARC because it’s not very good. Trains don’t run often, and only one way in the peak direction. That’s a good reason to improve it, but Parsons uses this as an argument to build more freeway lanes instead.

What about the freight rail that shares tracks with passenger rail?

There continue to be significant issues with competing freight traffic on the CSX lines (which may require adding a third track through a big part of the County, taking out homes and businesses in places like Kensington, Garrett Park Silver Spring, Rockville and Gaithersburg). ... Adding managed toll lanes between lower I-270 and the Western end of the Beltway at the American Legion Bridge (to connect with Virginia’s HOT lanes already in construction) ... ought to be among your top priorities over the next decade.

This is another odd combination of opinions. We can’t widen railroad rights-of-way, but it’s absolutely essential to widen freeway rights-of-way?

MARC, by the way, believes they can improve service while coexisting with the freight railroads. They have a plan for expansion that’s only waiting for funds, not tracks. Plus, because trains run fewer vehicles that carry more people than cars, more capacity could come from adding passing tracks in key areas instead of the whole way.

On the other hand, the Montgomery Planning Board’s recommended Sprawlway alternative would displace 251 families, and adding more lanes from Rockville down to the Beltway and over to the American Legion Bridge would surely condemn many more.

Parsons’ letter also contains some assertions which are either false, or based on information which nobody possesses except him. For example,

The highway portion of this project is likely to be paid for largely with the added toll revenues that the new managed toll lanes will generate. This is “new money” that would not be there if the lanes are not added. In the case of the ICC, tolls provided well more than half the total project cost and 270 could be even more.

The SHA’s analysis doesn’t bear out Parsons’ claims. Based on the data so far, the toll lanes won’t move appreciably faster than the non-toll lanes, meaning the toll will have to be very low to entice anyone into the toll lanes. Ben Ross argued that the tolls won’t even recoup the cost of collecting the tolls.

Perhaps ACT’s data is wrong. If so, SHA needs to release some actual revenue estimates. The Montgomery County Council sent them a letter before the recess asking for this information, along with other questions. When SHA responds, we can better judge whether this project will actually pay for itself as Parsons claims.

The cost alone should not be any reason to kill this project. The dramatic traffic relief it provides — 61% reduction in congestion, 60% reduction in travel times, and up to 84% improvement in peak-hour speeds ... are among the other reasons we cannot afford to kill it.

Parsons must not have read the 1999 article in the Washington Post, which pointed out the effects of the last I-270 widening. People said the same about congestion then, and the road filled right up with new drivers from new developments in Germantown, Clarksburg, and Frederick County.

This project isn’t for the existing residents, or the existing truck traffic to Ohio which Parsons argues is so important. No, this project is for the new residents, the ones who will fill up the lanes after they’re built. The question is not what existing people need, because new infrastructure won’t generate more economic growth from them or relieve their congestion. New infrastructure will bring in new residents and new jobs.

The only question is where those residents and jobs should be. Parsons doesn’t give any good reason why they should live on I-270 in Frederick County and drive through Montgomery to DC, except that it’s the logical extension of the public policy of the past. That’s not a good reason.

There’s a lot of room around Shady Grove and Glenmont Metro stations. Montgomery County wants to create a dense urban neighborhood at White Flint. Silver Spring still has numerous lots still undeveloped, and coffee-shop owners dying for the new residents and businesses to patronize them. There’s a big bioscience research facility at White Oak with plenty of room for more jobs, and the County has already looked into a Purple Line spur to reach it.

And none of this considers Prince George’s County, with its many underutilized Metro stations, Baltimore, or the rest of the state. Maryland Politics Watch has been hammering at the idea that Montgomery County, and the I-270 corridor in particular, is the economic engine of the state.

But this also reflects the past infrastructure investment decisions. There are more jobs on 270 because East County fought new jobs for many years. There is more housing than jobs on the east side; if Maryland put some investment into that area, it could become more of an economic engine. So could Prince George’s County and Baltimore.

This project definitely would detract from infrastructure investment and job growth in other areas. Parsons even reveals that he’d like the state to dump multiple years’ worth of transportation funding into this project. He writes, “I would expect the project would be broken up into smaller segments that would be manageable within any given capital budget cycle for whatever public funding may be needed.” To him, that’s actually an argument for the project. It’s not too expensive to build, as long as the state dedicates a period of time — say, a decade — during which they don’t do anything else.

Parsons further argues that it’s not appropriate for elected officials to weigh in on the best ways to spend $4 billion of public money. Doing so would be “blatant political interference in the study process,” as happened with the ICC, delaying it 20 years. That assumes, of course, that the ICC was appropriate to build. Parsons thinks so, we know, but most of the Maryland state legislature now wishes there had been a little more political interference.

Why take so much ink to rebut Parsons’ letters? Because changing the way we look at public policy is hard and takes time. Just look at President Obama’s major initiatives, which are slogging through a very difficult process in Congress. We’ve thought about energy and health care in a particular way for decades if not longer, and there are many people committed to the status quo.

Likewise, once-influential business leaders come out of the woodwork to fight for more sprawl because they see it as the only way, as a choice between more of it or stagnation. That’s a false choice. Senators Jennie Forehand, Rob Garagiola, Nancy King, Rona Kramer, Mike Lennett, Richard Madaleno, and Jamie Raskin are smart enough to see through Parsons’ “the only way is the highway” rhetoric that is more appropriate to 1939 GM executives than Maryland’s leaders of 2009.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.