Traffic on the Capital Beltway (I-495) approaching the I-270 spur. Image by bankbryan licensed under Creative Commons.

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan and Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn are bulldozing ahead with their proposal for massive toll lane expansion on the Capital Beltway and I-270. This deal is fundamentally flawed in multiple ways. The privately-managed lanes would cost between $9 and $11 billion, would incentivize driving in the face of a climate crisis, will require some homes to be demolished—oh, and won’t actually reduce congestion a few years down the road.

A crucial vote (delayed from last month) whether to authorize this Public-Private Partnership (P3) deal will take place this Wednesday, June 5, at the Maryland Board of Public Works. This powerful body can say yes, no, or pull it from the agenda to allow for further review. Only the Governor, State Treasurer Nancy Kopp, and State Comptroller Peter Franchot sit on the Board. Franchot is the swing vote.

Tell Franchot: Put the brakes on highway-widening

As Comptroller, Franchot has a responsibility to Maryland taxpayers. He should vote to delay the vote pending a more in-depth and independent review. The Pre-Solicitation Report includes clauses that put taxpayers at risk:

  1. If the toll road developer defaults on its commitments, and Maryland wishes to terminate – the state will still have to pay partial compensation to the developer’s lenders.
  2. If a court issues a ruling that blocks the project (such as for environmental impacts) the toll road developer must be compensated.
  3. Lawyers working for the state have hatched a complex scheme called the “MDTA notes” to get around legal obstacles that could impede the financing of the toll lanes. Not enough has been disclosed about this scheme for outsiders to judge whether it will work, whether it will put state taxpayers at risk, or whether it is even legal.

This proposed deal bears all the hallmarks of Virginia’s early disastrous P-3 deals, which included paying $300 million for a highway never built, and a tunnel deal with exorbitant tolls that required state payments to reduce the tolls. The main argument for doing a P3, per its supporters, is to shift the risk to the private sector. That’s not happening here.

Even Virginia’s more successful P3s are a warning rather than a model for Hogan’s proposal. Donna Chen, a professor at the University of Virginia, found that at the peak of rush hour, tolls on the Virginia Beltway HOT lanes run between $1.50 and $1.80 per mile. If drivers were to pay the same rates on Hogan’s proposed I-270 lanes, they would pay upward of $45 for the 25-mile trip from Frederick to Shady Grove.

Because MDOT’s current models do not include specific prices or tests of drivers’ willingness or ability to pay such prices, they are likely vulnerable to the “optimism bias” that the Federal Highway Administration found was common amongst the planning projections for US P3 projects in a 2016 review.

And Franchot shouldn’t take the Washington Post’s portrayal of its recent poll as indicating widespread support for the toll lanes. While 61% support the toll road at first, when people are next asked about their concerns, here are their responses:

  • 73% of people are very or somewhat concerned about the loss of homes.
  • 69% of people very or somewhat concerned that the road will be too expensive to use.
  • 68% of people very or somewhat concerned that the road will not reduce congestion.

The Post never asked the important follow-up question – something like: “Upon reflection, if these issues are indeed the case, do you support or oppose the toll lanes?”

Rahn is playing on real frustration with congestion. But new and expanded highways in metro areas fill up in as little as five years (remember the last time we widened I-270?!?). The general-purpose lanes will fill up again. In fact, the toll road operator depends on general-purpose lanes staying congested! Plus, increasing capacity on the Beltway and I-270 will also lead to more congestion on connecting roads.

It’s never a good idea to start with your conclusion and then bias the whole process. But that’s what happened with Virginia’s early P3 deals, and it’s what’s happening here. The Governor and Secretary have:

  1. Refused to study a smart growth alternative.
  2. Rejected all transit alternatives.
  3. Refused to complete the environmental and community impact analysis BEFORE they plan to solicit bids from toll road companies.
  4. Failed to be transparent to our legislators and the public, blocking legislation that would protect the public and the environment.

The most effective long-term response to traffic is smart growth – creating more walkable, transit-oriented communities (i.e. building around Metro stations in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties), combined with more transit (such as the Purple Line, MARC, Metro, and Bus Rapid Transit), and demand management incentives like expanded transit benefits.

This is the only way to handle our population growth without more traffic. The Council of Government’s Long-Range Transportation Plan study showed that Balanced Land Use, Demand Management, Bus Rapid Transit networks, and Metro ALL performed better than toll lanes as regional solutions.

Page ix of the Long Range Task Force's 2017 report.

It’s time to stop the headlong rush into a bad decision and a bad deal. Tell Franchot to put the brakes on this project!

Tell Franchot: Put the brakes on highway-widening

Stewart Schwartz is Executive Director and a founder of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, which he built into the leading smart growth organization in the Washington, DC region, addressing the interconnected issues of land use, transportation, urban design, housing, and energy. A retired Navy Captain with 24 years of active and reserve service, he earned a BA and JD from the University of Virginia and an MA from Georgetown University.

Tracy Hadden Loh loves cities, infrastructure, and long walks on the beach looking for shark teeth. She holds a Ph.D. in city and regional planning from UNC-Chapel Hill. By day, she is a data scientist at the Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis at George Washington University. By night, she is an activist, a law enforcement spouse, and the mother of a toddler. She served two years representing Ward 1 on the Mount Rainier City Council in Prince George's County, MD.