Traffic on I-270. Image by formulanone licensed under Creative Commons.

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan wants to spend billions to widen Maryland's highways in hopes of bringing congestion relief. While that may sound impressive, past experience shows it simply won't work. There's nothing to indicate this time would be any different from all the other times highways were widened, and then failed to make a dent in traffic.

Toll lanes won't help with congestion

Hogan touted the plan yesterday as "massive and unprecedented". That is certainly true. The current plan is to add four new lanes to the entire length of I-270, I-295, and the portion of I-495 that runs through Maryland. These lanes would all be tolled in hopes of attracting private financing to defray the estimated $9 billion cost, which is almost certainly far lower than the actual final price tag. Ben Ross, chair of the Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition, estimates the final price tag will be closer to $30 or $40 billion. 

Widening highways rarely leads to permanent congestion relief because it causes more people to drive than before. In fact, this has happened on the very same roads targeted for widening in Maryland. Widening parts of I-270 to 12 lanes in the 1990s almost immediately failed to work. The mistake was repeated again ten years later when new highway capacity exacerbated the region's east/west jobs and housing divide rather than making anyone's commute easier. 

For some reason Hogan seems to think the third time is a charm, and that 16 lanes will do what 12 couldn't.

Image by David Alpert.

All evidence shows that new lanes won't do much to relieve congestion. We've known this for a long time, but that hasn't stopped politicians from pushing forward huge highway projects – then new ones when the first projects don't deliver as promised.

Some think since the lanes will be tolled, the normal pitfalls won't happen. But as Stewart Schwartz of the Coalition for Smarter Growth points out:

"For such expense and damage, expansion is only a short-term fix, as experience shows that even with HOT (High Occupancy Toll) lanes, traffic will return to the general purpose lanes, and attract even more travelers. Even with HOT lanes the number of vehicles on the combined HOT and general purpose lanes would expand and those additional vehicles would then exit onto already overloaded connecting arterials. That’s why we have to look at alternatives that provide options to driving for so many trips.”


The price to avoid congestion is already steep. Fees have already spiked into double-digit figures for a one-way trip on I-495, and new tolls won't remotely pay for this new project. In fact, the fee would have to be around $38 during rush hour to pay for the $4 billion widening from Frederick to Shady Grove alone. That would be a tough sell for any politician, particularly a governor who campaigned on lowering toll rates across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

There's no space for new toll lanes

Toll lanes may be slimmer than general ones, but there is absolutely not enough space on the Beltway to add four new lanes, as well as ramps at interchanges. In fact, when the Maryland State Highway Administration last considered a proposal like this, they decided the only way to add four lanes to the Beltway was to have at least two of them elevated. Four additional lanes would dwarf the amount of property that was ultimately condemned to build the Purple Line.

Then there's the environment. Doubling the width of 270 through Montgomery County's Agricultural Reserve would have profound environmental impacts in a sensitive area.

Meanwhile, land needed to expand the beltway in Montgomery and Prince George's counties means land that can't be used to house people closer to existing transit. Doing so means more people will live in places where driving is the only option meaning – you guessed it – roads will become congested again.

What about transit?

This plan shows how little Hogan cares about public transportation, and that he doesn't understand that transit can do what highway widening cannot.

Hogan's original press release doesn't mention transit at all. It's much different from widening proposals in Virginia such as Transform 66, which has explicit plans to add new transit, pedestrian, and bicycling routes in conjunction with the new lanes. 

When Hogan canceled Baltimore's Red Line and dithered for months on whether to continue with a shovel-ready Purple Line, he said the state couldn't afford big-ticket transportation items. Here, nine billion dollars is the *starting* point for close to 100 miles of massive highway expansions. That's enough money to build the Red Line three times over. That nine billion could easily climb as details of the plan are ironed out. 

The Action Committee for Transit noted the bus routes that run along 270 are in danger of being cut, meaning Hogan's inattention to transit is putting more cars on the road even before one inch of new pavement has been laid:

The Action Committee for Transit is extremely disappointed that Governor Hogan has chosen to turn back the clock to fix 21st century problems with the failed solutions of the 1950s.  Experience has proven that increasing the number of lanes on I-270 and 495 encourages more people to drive and more miles will be driven to fill that road space.  As bad as this proposal is for traffic – it is worse for the neighborhoods along 495 and 270.  Eighty miles of neighborhoods will be directly affected by the widening of the roads. This proposal is being made without the benefit of enhancing the programs we know keep drivers off the road: better MARC train service and express bus service.

The most galling part? There are transit options along each highway corridor. MARC runs between Washington, Baltimore, and Frederick, but failure to do more than the bare minimum year after year has led to limited service for most of the system. The Purple Line will bring much-needed east/west travel relief to Maryland that hasn't happened with the expansion of 495 or the building of the inter-county connector.

Transit can provide a huge economic return to the state without the need for extremely high tolls. It's nothing but imprudent to spend billions solely on expanding highways without more nuanced considerations.

Maryland could do better 

There are times when toll lanes can be useful, such as those on the American Legion Bridge that could be part of a solution for congestion in Maryland and Virginia. But a blanket widening of three major highways without even a hint of transit, pedestrian, or bicycle improvements is a very bad start to the plan. Montgomery County transit advocates have long opposed widening the Legion Bridge, and will assuredly continue to fight efforts to do so. 

Governor Hogan needs to look at the facts: a mobile Maryland needs more than highway lanes widened as far as the eye can see.

Canaan Merchant was born and raised in Powhatan, Virginia and attended George Mason University where he studied English. He became interested in urban design and transportation issues when listening to a presentation by Jeff Speck while attending GMU. He lives in Burke.