Monday, July 20, 2009

I-270 Opponents Risk Traffic Nightmare

By Richard Parsons.

The Montgomery County Council will soon have another opportunity to comment on long-standing regional transportation plans to add new HOV or managed-toll lanes along heavily congested sections of I-270 in Montgomery County. This is part of a region-wide effort to create a coherent HOV/express-toll lane network to help move interstate and regional through-traffic more efficiently on our major highways and to free up more capacity for local trips. The Council is now considering what comments to submit on the Alternatives Analysis/Environmental Assessment (AA/EA), the latest phase of the ongoing “I-270/US 15 Multimodal Corridor Study.” This study, which has been going on for over a decade, is examining the impact of adding up to two new lanes on I-270, from Shady Grove Road to Frederick, and the Corridor Cities Transitway (CCT), as either a light-rail or bus-rapid transit line from the Shady Grove Metro station north to Clarksburg.

The results of the AA/EA study clearly show the need for both the CCT and the new lanes on I-270. Together, they bring about a dramatic reduction in traffic congestion and the improvements, even compared to current conditions, will last all the way out to 2030 and beyond. The results also provide an alarming look at just how bad traffic conditions on I-270 would be without the new lanes (whether mass transit service is expanded or not).

The bottom line: Traffic conditions on I-270 under the “no-build” scenario would range from “horrific” to a full-blown “traffic nightmare” during both rush-hours. However, with a combination of new managed lanes and better transit service from a light-rail CCT, we can avoid this. These findings are not new: The Planning Board’s TPR Report reached exactly the same conclusions back in 2002, which is why this project was added to the County’s 10-year Transportation Plan at that time. This latest AA/EA document, on which the Council is now being asked to comment, confirms why the widening of I-270 was adopted by the Council without much controversy. All you need to do is look at the numbers from the table below to understand why:

Dramatic Traffic Relief

What jumps out of this table is the dramatic traffic relief these improvements deliver: A 61% reduction in congestion, and several segments that move from stop-and-go conditions at 5-10 mph (without the widening) to freeway speeds of 55 mph and above (with the new lanes). Overall, travel time is cut by 55% to 60% and travel speed increases by 70% to 87%. When travel speeds improve this significantly, not only do you help people get where they are going much faster (a good thing, last I checked), but you also save tons of wasted fuel and unnecessary auto emissions from over 200,000 cars per day stuck idling in stop-and-go conditions, which is the worst possible outcome for the environment (and exactly what the no-build Alternative produces).

State officials who testified before the T&E Committee indicated that most of these positive traffic relief impacts are due to the added capacity on I-270, but the addition of a dedicated alignment for the CCT, which is also included in both build-alternatives, also helps to a smaller degree. The CCT provides a valuable alternative to being stuck in traffic on I-270, but by itself, it does not deliver anything like these dramatic reductions in traffic or even keep things from getting dramatically worse over time. The best solution is clearly doing both, based on the study data.

How Bad it will Get Without the New Lanes

To drive home the point about just how bad conditions would be in 2030 under the No-build Alternative, and how much better travel conditions would be in 2030 with either Alternatives 7A or 7B, Table 2 breaks out the data on “Levels of Service” (LOS) and “Volume to Capacity” ratios (V/C). V/C ratios over 1.0 generally mean traffic is severely congested with actual volumes that exceed the design capacity of the roadway. The “No-build” shows several segments in the range of 1.31 to 1.57 in Montgomery County, which essentially means stop-and-go conditions and long delays. In fact, as you can see below, without the widening, the entire length of I-270 in Montgomery County would be either at LOS “E” or “F” and some segments are very deep into “F.” You can see the difference that adding two new lanes and the CCT will make very clearly in this table:

Adding new lanes makes a lot of these red segments turn green. A similar change happens in the PM rush-hour.

New Lanes Provide Enhanced Transit Service that Complements the CCT

A key point missing from this discussion has to do with transit service, both through the length of the CCT alignment from Shady Grove to Clarksburg, and from Clarksburg north to Frederick. The new lane capacity, especially in Alternative 7A, which provides barrier-separated express lanes, allows you to vastly improve transit service throughout the corridor. With that new capacity, you can run fast express busses from Frederick all the way down to key points like Clarksburg, Germantown, Metropolitan Grove and Shady Grove. With this plus the more local service provided along the dedicated CCT alignment, between Shady Grove and Clarksburg, you have a very robust, effective and efficient transit system offering both local and express service. Transit travel times from Clarksburg to Shady Grove drop by 40% under this scenario. But without the extra lanes on 270, you can forget about transit to Frederick, and you make "express bus" on 270 an oxymoron. And for those who have not been paying attention to the last two decades of studies on this point, rail to Frederick is not a viable option. Not now, not 20 years from now, not 40 years from now, maybe not ever. The numbers could not be clearer.

If the County Council wants to be serious about expanding transit service in this key smart-growth corridor, the plan the Council’s T&E Committee approved is the right approach, with one exception: They should have stood their ground for a light-rail CCT instead of Bus-Rapid-Transit (BRT). The state is going to have new numbers this Fall which may boost the cost-effectiveness data enough to win federal approval for light-rail, and the full Council should hold firm for light rail.

270 is Critical to a Sustainable Economic Future

The difference this project will make to Montgomery County employers located in the I-270 corridor is hard to overstate. It literally will make or break the I-270 corridor and its ability to attract and retain knowledge workers. The kind of traffic conditions shown in Table 2 for the no-build alternative will be the death-knell of our leading employment corridor. Those conditions are simply not sustainable, environmentally or economically. Without these new lanes, we will literally choke the life out of Maryland’s leading job creation engine, the I-270 Technology Corridor.

This would be the opposite of smart growth. Maryland’s landmark 1997 Smart Growth Act specifically calls for transportation improvements to be focused on limited-access highways and transit facilities that link smart growth centers together in existing, already developed corridors like this one. Both the CCT and the new managed lanes on I-270 would clearly fall within the letter and the intent of Maryland’s Smart Growth Act, as every one of the major job and population centers that would be served by this project has already been designated as a “Priority Funding Area” (the technical term for smart growth centers in Maryland).


We all know travel conditions on most of I-270 will become virtually impassable without this project. The study results clearly show that both the new lanes and the CCT are needed. This is why Roger Berliner (hardly a pro-highway kind of guy) and Nancy Floreen (a huge supporter of the CCT) voted to support both the 270 widening and the CCT on the T&E Committee – a vote that was driven by some very compelling data.

The only real question before the Council is which “build-alternative” to support. Alternative 3 is recommended by the County Executive. Alternative 7A provides the most traffic relief and the greatest transit service in the corridor. The “no-build” scenario is simply not an option. Alternative 7A appears to be the best option based on the traffic relief it provides and the superior local and express transit service it provides for the entire corridor.