I-270 approaching the Beltway by Adam Fagen licensed under Creative Commons.

Maryland has proposed a Traffic Relief Plan to reduce congestion and travel times on some major state highways and improve residents' quality of life. The hitch? The only options on the table would make all of those things worse.

Part of Governor Larry Hogan's plan includes the I-495 & I-270 P3 Program, a public-private partnership ostensibly created to address congestion and slow travel times on those highways. Initially, the Maryland Department of Transportation (DOT) State Highway Administration (SHA) put forward a fairly wide range of potential changes, including transit options like heavy rail (similar to Metro Rail), light rail (like the Purple Line), and various dedicated bus network options.

Recently, these alternatives were narrowed down. A no-build option is still there, but the remainder of possible changes boil down to simply widening these highways by adding new lanes with a variety of toll, high-occupancy vehicle (HOV), or reversible travel lane options.

I-495 & I-270 P3 Program Study Area. Image by Maryland DOT SHA.

Maryland will likely widen I-495 and I-270

Study after study after study has shown that when jurisdictions build new roads or widen existing ones, this simply causes more drivers to use them and congestion quickly returns back to previous levels—and sometimes even worsens, since there are more people on the road. Los Angeles is a prime example of this.

When you make more of a resource available, people will quickly use the additional resource until it is saturated again. This well-researched phenomenon is known as induced demand. Even if tolls are included in any new lanes, we already know from Virginia that they do not necessarily improve driver experience.

Drivers kill nearly 40,000 people in the United States every year and traffic fatalities are on the rise in our region. Policies that encourage more people to drive would likely contribute to more crashes and further human harm. There are no plans to expand capacity in neighborhoods around these highways or in DC, so it would impose even further congestion and adverse effects from cars on our region and neighborhoods.

Nonetheless, in the face of this evidence and urgent warnings to reduce driving in the recent UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, Maryland appears to be moving ahead with highway-widening. More drivers on the road would further pollute our environment and add to global greenhouse gas emissions in a time when we desperately need to reduce fossil fuel consumption.

In its justification for eliminating transit options, the program offers two main points, neither of which are rooted in facts:

Claim 1: Transit-only options won’t address existing and long-term traffic growth

What the program fails to recognize is that all available data suggest that building new car lanes would actually be the least effective method to address growth and congestion. Cars are the least efficient method of travel since they are predominantly used by single occupants.

Building new lanes will simply induce further demand and increase car use, car deaths, and pollution. Transit would be far more efficient at moving people if it’s built and funded adequately.

Relative space consumed by transportation options showing cars as the least efficient mode by far. From Who Pays for Roads, a report from Frontier Group and U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) Education Fund.

Claim 2: Transit options won’t be financially self-sufficient

This may be true, but it’s even more true for cars. Infrastructure for cars is far from self-sufficient. Direct funding sources such as the gas tax and other user fees cover less than half of direct car and road maintenance, without counting the far greater indirect costs to human health that cars impose on society.

Even if tolls lanes are introduced, regional experience in Virginia has shown them to be money losers. Transit, while not self-sufficient on fares alone, would be far better overall for society both in terms of dollars spent to maintain infrastructure and move people, as well as reducing human harm and environmental impact. If we use financial self-sufficiency to judge our options, new roads and lanes should be the first options eliminated.

Percentage of highways spending from various sources showing decreasing percentage of user revenue support over time. From Who Pays for Roads, a report from Frontier Group and US Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) Education Fund.

Direct user fees accounted for less than half of revenues used for roads and highways in the most recent analysis available from 2012. From Who Pays for Roads, a report from Frontier Group and US Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) Education Fund.

You can weigh in on the proposal

Under current law, Maryland must get consent from the majority of affected Eastern Shore counties before it can build a new toll road through those counties. To make this fair, the Maryland House of Delegates and Senate have both introduced “County Consent” bills (House Bill 102 and Senate Bill 442) extending this requirement for consent to all state counties. This includes Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, which would be most affected by any I-495 or I-270 widening.

Neighborhood groups and coalitions have been vocal in their opposition, but your voice matters too. If you would like to share your thoughts, please contact the I-495 & I-270 project team and Governor Hogan.

If you are a Maryland resident, you can contact your relevant Maryland Delegates and Senators and urge them to oppose new roads and support House Bill 102 and Senate Bill 442. In addition, you can contact the Montgomery County Council and urge them to vote for a resolution currently under consideration to support these bills.