Tuesday, July 21, 2009

D.C. Blog Misleads MoCo Residents on I-270

DuPont Circle resident Dave Alpert, founder of the pro-transit blog Greater Greater Washington, has launched a campaign against the widening of I-270. We usually agree with smart-growth advocates like Alpert and we admire much of his past work. But this time, he is basing the bulk of his case on misinformation. And as much as we dislike congestion and sprawl, we dislike misleading arguments even more.

Alpert’s fundamental premise is that the $3.8 billion cost of widening I-270 could be used instead for transit. The problem with this reasoning is that the extra lanes under consideration for most of the road’s length will probably charge tolls. Under the option preferred by the Montgomery County Council’s Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy and Environment Committee, those lanes would be express toll lanes, which require vehicles to pay tolls that increase in times of great highway demand. Free-flowing toll lanes attract drivers who pay tolls until the speeds in those lanes fall to the same level as the speeds in general purpose lanes. Those tolls can be used to pay off toll-backed bonds, which can fund at least part of the cost of the project.

Greater Greater Washington calls the I-270 proposal “ICC 2.0.” In a prior post, we described how the ICC was financed:

The project’s total cost is budgeted at $2.4 billion. Of that amount, $1.23 billion is from toll-backed revenue bonds, $750 million is from GARVEE bonds (which are backed by future federal aid), $264.9 million is from Maryland’s general fund, $180 million is from Maryland’s Transportation Trust Fund (TTF) and $18.5 million is from direct federal aid. That means that just $463.4 million, or 19% of the project’s cost, is coming from direct expenditures. The remainder consists of borrowed money (though some of that will draw from future federal aid).
So in the case of the ICC, over 80% of the money could not have been used for transit projects. While no one has yet proposed a financing plan for I-270, there is little reason to believe that it will not also include toll-backed bonds and highway GARVEE bonds – neither of which can be put towards transit.

Even more specious is the argument that the I-270 funding can be used to build a light-rail Corridor Cities Transitway. As we have previously explained, light rail on the CCT currently fails the federal cost-effectiveness test, thereby greatly reducing the project’s chances of obtaining federal funding. The only chance for improving the CCT’s cost effectiveness lies in accounting for increased density from the new Gaithersburg West master plan, but Alpert opposes that plan.

So Greater Greater Washington would have us believe that I-270’s toll-based funding – which after all, would not exist without a toll project – can be diverted to a rail project which probably cannot gain federal approval without increased density that they oppose. That is at best a failure of logic. At worst, it is misinformation. In either case, it is a poor basis to oppose the project.

The best arguments against the ICC were that it would lead to environmental damage, neighborhood destruction and auto-centric development. Whether they were right or wrong, those arguments were at least intellectually honest and they can be used fairly against the widening of I-270. The worst argument against the ICC was that its funding could be spent dollar-for-dollar on other projects. That claim was false as applied to the vast majority of the road’s financing, but opponents used it anyway. Greater Greater Washington’s campaign against I-270 follows that tradition.

So if you are inclined to oppose toll lanes on I-270, stand against them for honest reasons. Don’t assume that blocking road projects will help us get more transit, or that Montgomery County will turn into one big DuPont Circle as a result.