Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Battle of I-270, Part Four

How do you justify a giant road project in an area where transit is popular? Try this: call the road project a transit project.

County Council staffer Glenn Orlin, who is so influential in Rockville that he is sometimes called “the tenth Council Member,” wrote this statement in his analysis of the I-270 project:

The cost of the 1-270 improvements dwarfs the cost of the CCT; it constitutes 83-90% of the total cost. Of the $4.58 billion cost of the highway improvements, $2.64 billion are in Montgomery County and $1.94 billion are in Frederick County or City. But the fact that the improvements in Montgomery County would be managed lanes - and, preferably, HOT lanes that would extend onto the current HOV lanes and ultimately to the HOT lanes under construction on the Virginia portion of the Capital Beltway - arguably would provide an even larger transit and ridesharing benefit than the CCT itself, as well as providing some congestion relief for those paying a toll and even modest relief for low-occupancy vehicles not opting to pay the toll. The managed lanes should be thought as primarily transit and ride sharing priority lanes, providing the ability for buses, vanpools and carpools to bypass congestion entirely. With an extension onto the existing managed lanes south of Shady Grove on I-270 and the planned managed lanes on 1-495 connecting to the HOT lanes under construction on the Virginia portion of the Beltway, one can envision a regional bus/ridesharing system that would obviate the need for another Potomac River crossing.
Council Member George Leventhal (who happens to be an ardent Purple Line supporter) picked up on that point during the council’s discussion of I-270:

...I am gonna go ahead and take on the argument that's been promoted by my friends at the Coalition for Smarter Growth and the Sierra Club and the Greater Greater Washington blog because what I understand them to be saying is, "There is no transit alternative. Don't do anything until you have a transit alternative so you don't have to build roads," and what I'm hearing loudly and clearly from the state and from Glenn and from Gary is, widening 270 is the transit alternative. It is the transit alternative, and there isn't another transit alternative, and the reason is precisely because we don't want to foster sprawl, so the density that would be required to build a mass-transit system, either a busway or a trolley, all the way to Frederick would require greater density in Frederick than current planning allows. So, you cannot simultaneously say, "We don't want sprawl," and then say, "I don't want roads. Let's build transit all the way to Frederick other than on I-270," because that requires sprawl. It requires density, you know, in Urbana and Frederick. It requires riders. You can't support a transit line unless you have riders, unless you have development, everything that these very prestigious groups that I respect claim to oppose, so what they really don't want is any more lane miles.
Leventhal continued:

So, I know that we're all feeling some political pressure here, and I know that, hey, I'm getting the e-mails, too, and, you know, my neighbors in Takoma Park are gonna get all jacked up about this. You know, the Greater Greater Washington blog is threatening me. They're saying this is the next ICC. Well, you know, I've got the scars from the ICC battle, and maybe some in the community enjoy that battle. I don't enjoy it, and maybe some in the community want to make this the next ICC, but, in fact, it sounds to me--and I'm gonna pause for a question now--that the additional lanes on 270 are indeed the transit alternative and there isn't another transit alternative. There isn't a way to extend the snaky, circuitous--whether it's a trolley or a busway--CCT beyond Clarksburg. The density just won't justify it.
It’s a novel argument to sell a giant road project as also being a transit project. But it’s not unprecedented. Council Member Marc Elrich, a bitter foe of the ICC, now wants to run a BRT route on it. Baltimore Sun reporter and I-270 opponent Mike Dresser agrees with that strategy. In its current form, the CCT does not extend to Frederick but rapid buses running on Express Toll Lanes could. I-270 opponents have not taken on this argument yet and they should before it builds traction.

In Part Five, we’ll tell you which person we are watching to see where the politics of I-270 are headed.