Monday, September 07, 2009

The Battle of I-270, Part One

The transportation problems in the I-270 corridor have been under study by the Maryland Department of Transportation since 1998. But it was not until this summer that a proposal to widen the road came up for consideration in the Montgomery County Council and was targeted by opponents for defeat. Whatever the outcome, this controversy will rage on for many years. In this five-part series, we examine the current order of battle.

First, a bit of background. The state’s I-270/US-15 Multi-Modal Study includes both an assessment of I-270 and an examination of the Corridor Cities Transitway (CCT). The state suggests seven alternatives for I-270:

1. No Build
2. Transportation System Management (minor improvements with no capacity additions)
3. HOV Lanes with CCT
4. General Purpose Lanes with CCT
5. HOV + General Purpose Lanes with CCT/Premium Bus
6. Express Toll Lanes (ETLs) and one General Purpose Lane with CCT
7. Express Toll Lanes (ETLs) and two General Purpose Lanes with CCT

The state released a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) on the project in 2002 and followed up with an update including Alternatives 6 and 7 last May. The state estimated that in 2030, 43.2 miles of the corridor’s 64.2 miles (both directions) would be at Level of Service F (failing) if nothing were done. Under Alternative 6, 31.3 miles would be rated as F and under Alternative 7, 17.3 miles would be rated as F. The state also found that the project could displace up to 251 residences and 11 businesses and adversely impact 8 historic properties, 15.6 acres of wetlands and 269 acres of forest land. The state estimated the project would boost vehicle miles traveled above the no-build alternative in 2030 by 0.97%-1.14% and would raise most pollutants by 1% or less.

The state estimates the cost of Alternatives 6 and 7 as $3.9 billion. With the CCT, the cost rises to a range of $4.3-4.7 billion.

On July 17, the Montgomery County Council’s Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy and Environment (T&E) Committee, then comprising Chair Nancy Floreen and Roger Berliner, recommended Alternative 7 (ETLs). Committee member George Leventhal was absent. On July 21, the entire council discussed the I-270 issue but deferred a vote on it until the fall. During this time, the D.C.-based Greater Greater Washington blog launched a petition drive to rally opposition against the project and smart growth groups and the Sierra Club sent letters of protest. Many Montgomery County and Frederick County politicians wrote in support of widening along with County Executive Ike Leggett while Senator Brian Frosh (D-16) tried to organize a letter against it. The Montgomery County Council will take a position in the fall and the state will eventually pick a locally-preferred alternative, possibly after the next election.

This fight is going to drag on for a long time. Like all big transportation projects, this one has supporters and opponents. Each side has strengths, weaknesses and obstacles. We’ll start looking at the combatants in Part Two.