Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The Battle of I-270, Part Two

The I-270 widening project has both supporters and opponents. Today, we’ll look at the supporters.

So far, the most prominent non-governmental supporter of I-270 widening has been the local business community. On July 20, the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce wrote the County Council in favor of both I-270 and a light rail CCT. Of the fourteen state legislators representing the districts along the project’s route (3B, 15, 17 and 39), twelve signed a letter supporting widening. Montgomery County Council Members Nancy Floreen and Roger Berliner cast a committee vote in favor of widening. The County Executive favors HOV lanes. And the tens of thousands of drivers stuck on the hopelessly congested interstate are desperately craving relief.

That coalition looks good on paper, but it will have problems winning the project. Here are three challenges they will need to confront.

1. Opponents are louder
The loose group of smart growth advocates, environmentalists and blog readers on Greater Greater Washington have been far louder in opposition than the supporters. There is simply no organized group to put out a pro-I-270 message, at least not yet. That fact helped the opponents ward off a July vote on the County Council. Unless supporters get organized and active, the opponents will be able to pull off more short-term victories in the future.

2. Montgomery is disadvantaged in Annapolis
Even if Senator Brian Frosh’s anti-I-270 letter fails, the Montgomery Delegation faces an uphill fight at the statehouse if they truly want this project.

For starters, the project’s discussion comes too soon after the initiation of the ICC. Many politicians and residents in other parts of the state will say, “They’re getting the ICC, they want the Purple Line and the CCT and now they want even more. When will big, arrogant Montgomery County stop throwing its weight around?” Whether that feeling is justified or not, it exists and manifests itself in many ways. For example, the Baltimore Sun uses MoCo-bashing to boost its readership. Politicians as diverse as Republican Senator E.J. Pipkin (R-36) and Democratic District 30 Delegate candidate Judd Legum denounce Montgomery transportation projects because it plays well with their constituents. And while I-270 draws broad ire, no one complains about the Express Toll Lanes planned for northeast of Baltimore.

The Montgomery delegation is ill-equipped to fight back. Despite its size, the delegation has only one committee chair in the House and one in the Senate. (The Senate chair belongs to none other than I-270 opponent Brian Frosh.) The most parochial members of the delegation tend to be the most isolated from leadership and their colleagues. Senator Rona Kramer (D-14) and Delegate Charles Barkley (D-39) have both been demoted for tangling with leadership and Delegate Ben Kramer (D-14) tried to leave Annapolis altogether for a County Council seat. The delegation has yet to unite to win a big parochial battle in Annapolis and if they do, I-270 is not likely to be the issue to make that happen.

3. Project cost
Widening I-270 will cost at least $4 billion in today’s dollars. That is much higher than the cost of the $2.4 billion ICC. About half the ICC’s cost was paid for by toll-backed bonds, one-third was paid for by GARVEE bonds (which are paid back by future federal aid) and less than one-fifth was paid for by state general fund and Transportation Trust Fund (TTF) money. If that same model were applied to the I-270 project, at least $700 million would be due from the general fund and the TTF that could be spent on other projects.

That is a very tall order considering that the state is planning three major transit projects that will require some state financing; the state is far behind on BRAC-related work; and the TTF is in such bad shape that it can barely keep up with system preservation needs. On top of all that, some state legislators are openly talking about raiding the TTF to plug general fund deficits. While it is not true that the state would bear anywhere close to the full $4 billion cost of the I-270 project, it certainly is true that the state will owe a significant amount of money at a time when it has little or none of it. That is an unpleasant truth faced by the advocates of any transportation project (like the transit lines), and the bigger the project, the uglier that truth becomes.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at I-270 opponents.