Photo by dougtone on Flickr.

With little notice and virtually no public input, the staff of the Metropolitan Washington Transportation Planning Board have slipped the controversial, $3.4 billion I-270 widening into the region’s long-term plan while ignoring other alternatives and more pressing transportation needs, like MARC.

The TPB is the official Metropolitan Plannning Organization (MPO) for our region. Federal law tasks MPOs with the job of assembling a “constrained” plan for transportation that allocates federal and local transportation revenues to various projects. That plan has to fit within available revenue, comply with (fairly weak) air quality rules and some other requirements.

But who decides which projects go into the long-range plans?

Recently, something new suddenly appeared in the plan: MDOT’s very expensive idea to spend $3.4 billion to widen I-270 and create more traffic in Montgomery County and more sprawl in Frederick County. We debated the wisdom of this project last year, and the Montgomery County Council scaled it back a bit, but MDOT had stacked the deck to basically force them to choose among highway widening options.

Technically, the TPB is supposed to conduct a public input process to formulate this plan, but in reality they simply “staple” together the requests from DDOT, MDOT, and VDOT. There is a brief public comment period which has now come and gone, but the TPB buried the announcement of this item in fine print, meaning almost nobody knew it was under debate until this very late date.

There are a lot of other projects that would be nice to build, too. There’s the Purple Line. The Corridor Cities Transitway. Marc Elrich’s Bus Rapid Transit ideas. Governor O’Malley published a plan to expand MARC service in the 270 corridor and the Baltimore-Washington corridor.

However, the common refrain for many of these projects is: they’re very expensive, and we can’t afford them right now. They are expensive, but so is the 270 widening. It’s even more expensive. Yet somehow that one pops into the long-range plans while the others don’t.

Ultimately, Maryland has no money. They bonded the next few decades’ worth of federal revenues for the ICC. Eventually, they will be able to scrape together some more. By putting this project into the plan, it biases the future decisions about this money toward building it, even though residents of the region never got to discuss if they’d rather have this project or MARC, plus the Corridor Cities Transitway, plus a Red Line extension, plus streetcars, plus even more.

Why doesn’t the plan call for MARC? What about other transit improvements around 270? Or building the Purple Line with federal transportation formula money, the guaranteed money that would be used for the highway but which Maryland could use for transit instead, instead of waiting for a very competitive and uncertain New Starts grant?

This is the process by which state “highway departments,” those folks in the transportation bureaucracy who still see their mandate as finishing old 1960s highway plans, get the highway projects done despite public support for transit over roads.

First, they put them into a long-range plan despite the fact that there is no money. Then, over time, people start to argue that the project “has been on the books forever” and we just have to complete it. Since it costs so much, there isn’t room to fit any other really big projects in there for a long time. Eventually, it happens, and suddenly another really big, really unaffordable road project appears in the long-range plan.

TPB director Ron Kirby and Maryland transportation secretary Beverley Swaim-Staley say including this doesn’t commit the state to building it, but does designate it “something we want to do.” Meanwhile, all the other, better transportation ideas apparently aren’t “something we want to do.”

The TPB shouldn’t be making decisions today about what major projects to build in 2030, at least not without a real public input process instead of the sham one they use today. If the board is going to put expensive transportation projects into the plan, there should be some long-term transit expansions, not just whatever big highway MDOT wants to build today. In the meantime, the TPB should take this project out of the plan and open up a more genuine comment period on what long-term projects Maryland residents would really like to see.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Surface Transit. 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 here are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.