Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Brian Frosh and Rich Parsons Debate I-270

As we previously reported, Senator Brian Frosh (D-16) is attempting to organize a Montgomery County Senate Delegation letter opposing the I-270 project. That prompted an email exchange with former Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce CEO Rich Parsons, a project supporter, that was distributed to all of the county's Senators. We reproduce the emails in their entirety below.

From: Rich Parsons
Date: Tue, Aug 18, 2009 at 5:09 PM
Subject: I 270 transit options - letter request from Senator Frosh
To: Forehand, Jennie Senator; Garagiola, Rob Senator; King, Nancy
Senator; Kramer, Rona Senator; Lenett, Mike Senator; Madaleno, Richard
Senator; Raskin, Jamie Senator

A quick personal plea:

I understand Senator Frosh is sending around a letter to the Governor for his colleagues to sign on the pending I-270 study. I am writing to ask that you please hold off on signing onto this letter, at least until we have a chance to talk. The letter is way off-base for a couple of key reasons. The main problem is that what he is asking for – reasonable as it may sound on the surface -- has already been done many times: namely studying non-road alternatives to reduce traffic in the 270 corridor. Been there, done that, folks, more than once too. The current study, in fact, has identified the most effective transit alternatives, which are highly effective indeed. Following the course this letter advocates would be a big step backwards, and the letter displays a lack of basic familiarity with the issue with which I am not sure you want to be associated.

This effort comes across to many of us who have been involved in these studies as yet another delay tactic on a major corridor study that is more than a decade in the making. Now that we are nearing the Final Environmental Impact Study stage, further delays could be very costly indeed. Haven’t we learned this lesson enough?

I would strongly urge you not to sign on, or at least do your own independent fact checking into this issue first. The so-called alternatives ACT is pushing here are wildly unrealistic and have already been studied and rejected both by the State and by the Montgomery County Planning Board in its TPR report in 2002. And ACT has shown itself previously not to be a reliable source for information on transportation issues. This is just more of the same. I know what they are pushing here may sound attractive on the surface, at least to the uninformed, but not all is as it seems. In short, please look before you leap on this one.

If you want more detail, I am out of town now but will be back next week. In the meantime, I am available by cell phone if you have questions.

Thanks. I hope you are enjoying your summer.

Warm regards,

Rich Parsons


From: Frosh, Brian Senator
Sent: Monday, August 24, 2009 3:25 PM
To: Forehand, Jennie Senator; Garagiola, Rob Senator; King, Nancy
Senator; Kramer, Rona Senator; Lenett, Mike Senator; Madaleno, Richard
Senator; Raskin, Jamie Senator
Subject: More on I-270

Dear Colleague,

I understand you've received an email from Rich Parsons urging you not to endorse the letter relating to I-270 that I circulated last week. Rich is right about one thing: People have been analyzing ways to improve transportation in the for I-270 corridor for years.

What's different now is a proposal for an aggressive, expensive expansion of I-270 that's been added to the SHA's corridor study. SHA estimates the option's cost at over $4 billion. The price tag alone should have killed it.

If we're seriously thinking about spending that kind of money, we need a study of all-transit alternatives, not just roads. Options previously rejected because of their cost become viable--Metro to Germantown, for instance, 15-minute rush-hour MARC service, commuter service to Hagerstown, a range of possibilities that could spell a permanent cure to the I-270 mess instead of a temporary fix.

Will analyzing those alternatives slow down the process? Not likely. Some of the work has already been done, as Rich pointed out. A $4 billion project--road or otherwise--won't be leaping out of the starting blocks any time soon. And even if the money is there, the folks who support the build option know that a lot more research is needed: the County Planning Board identified a page-full of items that need to be analyzed in connection with the build option.

So talk to Rich if he calls; he's a good lobbyist for his client. But don't let him fool you into thinking that all-transit alternatives have been analyzed to death. Or that there's not enough time to do this right.




From: Rich Parsons
Sent: 8/25/2009 3:18:39 P.M. Eastern Daylight Time
To: Forehand, Jennie Senator; Garagiola, Rob Senator; King, Nancy
Senator; Kramer, Rona Senator; Lenett, Mike Senator; Madaleno, Richard
Senator; Raskin, Jamie Senator
Subj: RE: More on I-270

I would like to respond to Senator Frosh's recent email regarding I-270.

First, I appreciate Senator Frosh's response to my email last week urging you not to sign the letter he is distributing on the I-270 project. This is a subject that is of such critical importance to our future that it needs and deserves exactly this kind of dialog before anyone makes any hasty decisions that might lock you in to a position you might later regret, or that is not supported by the available study data, so his comments are welcome.

To Brian's points (his message is attached below):

1. He is incorrect in asserting that the expansion of I-270 is anything new in this corridor study. Both expanded lane capacity and transit options have always been included, for over a decade. In fact, widening I-270 north of Shady Grove Road is already part of Montgomery County's officially adopted 10-year transportation plan (and has been for many years, since around 2002, I believe). It was one of the most effective and important traffic-relief measures found in the 2002 TPR Report and was endorsed by both the Montgomery County Planning Board and the County Council.

2. As to the cost, please keep in mind that the highway portion of this project is likely to be paid for largely with the added toll revenues that the new managed toll lanes will generate. This is "new money" that would not be there if the lanes are not added. In the case of the ICC, tolls provided well more than half the total project cost and 270 could be even more. Also, if you look at this corridor study from a regional perspective, it is a good candidate for private-sector investment, which would not cost taxpayers much if anything (Dulles Greenway was built with private-sector funds). Especially if it is looked at in conjunction with the ongoing SHA study on adding managed toll lanes between lower I-270 and the Western end of the Beltway at the American Legion Bridge (to connect with Virginia's HOT lanes already in construction), its potential for public-private or full private-sector funding is much greater and very much worth exploring. This is why the cost alone should not be any reason to kill this project. The dramatic traffic relief it provides -- 61% reduction in congestion, 60% reduction in travel times, and up to 84% improvement in peak-hour speeds -- and the lack of any effective alternatives, which is well documented – are among the other reasons we cannot afford to kill it. Finally, keep in mind, this corridor study is meant to lay out the long-term vision for this corridor over the next many decades. I would expect the project would be broken up into smaller segments that would be manageable within any given capital budget cycle for whatever public funding may be needed. But the guiding vision needs to be there to ensure a coherent, well-designed, multi-modal system in this corridor -- which remains MD's and Montgomery County's number-one job creation engine -- and this is exactly what the current study is doing.

3. As to the claim that transit options have not been studied, or that this study looked at "just roads," this simply isn't true. One needs only to check the I-270 corridor study or the Planning Board's TPR study documents to see who is right on this one.

4. I have serious doubts whether any of the specific transit options Brian mentioned, most of which have been previously studied and rejected, would ever be viable. For example, Metro to Germantown (already studied and rejected) is not viable for a host of reasons, including that it will never have sufficient ridership to qualify for federal funding. The TPR study looked at Metro extension in detail, all the way out to 2050, and still we were not even close to hitting the minimum thresholds required from Shady Grove to Metropolitan Grove, let alone Germantown (the TPR Task Force, which included many of the County's leading transit advocates, dropped this proposal by consensus -- which was a rare commodity in that task force). As for 15-minute rush-hour MARC service, studies do not indicate enough ridership to justify the cost, and there continue to be significant issues with competing freight traffic on the CSX lines (which may require adding a third track through a big part of the County, taking out homes and businesses in places like Kensington, Garrett Park Silver Spring, Rockville and Gaithersburg). Besides, last time I looked at the current MARC ridership, it was underperforming estimates and the current rush hour service was underutilized. This may still be the case and needs checking. As for commuter rail service to Hagerstown, this is not something many transit experts would take very seriously. The distance, travel times, and lack of density along the route -- along with far more cost-effective express bus options using the new lanes on I-270 -- are all serious issues that I do not think can ever be overcome. This is a non-starter. To say that any of these, or even a combination of all, would offer "a permanent cure to the I-270 mess" flies in the face of every transit study ever done in this corridor. All previous studies have found that even the most ambitious rail transit options will have a minimal impact on 270 traffic (we are talking less than 1% reductions typically).

There are reasons for this that no amount of wishful thinking can change: (a) the vast majority of trips on 270 are NOT commuting trips, and rail transit does absolutely nothing to accommodate the movement of freight, or interstate auto travel through our region, and virtually nothing for the majority of local trips that are non-commuting; (b) This is a key interstate highway segment that connects the nation's capital to most of the Midwest, in addition to serving as the lifeblood of our local employment base, so the projected "Level F" congestion we know we will face here without the widening is something we have to address, and no amount of rail transit has ever been shown to change this by itself; and (c) Heavy rail transit options like Brian is suggesting (i.e. extension of Metro service) tend to serve commuters in urban areas very well, where high densities of jobs, housing, and high-rise urban streetscapes allow for high ridership and lots of walkable destinations on either end of the trip. However, heavy rail transit is generally not cost-effective in any suburban setting once the level of density falls below say a Bethesda, Silver Spring, or Rockville; so light-rail and Bus-Rapid-Transit systems are really the only viable options for mass transit in the 270 corridor. Once you get north of Clarksburg, studies consistently show the only viable transit option is Bus-Rapid-Transit using I-270, although light rail could be viable from Shady Grove to Clarksburg in the future if the densities are there but certainly not heavy rail. Given all of this, no matter what we do on the transit side, we will need to add new capacity to I-270 to have any measurable impact on congestion and to allow for the one viable mode of mass transit that previous studies have found in the northern part of this corridor, which is express-bus. All of this is right there in the study data.

5. As Brian indicated, there is more research needed, and as this project moves to the Final Environmental Impact Statement stage, that is exactly what will happen. If there are any truly viable alternatives out there, beyond what the professionals at MTA and SHA have already analyzed, they should be considered -- but I haven't seen any yet. The latest PR fluff from ACT certainly doesn't meet that standard. Anyone can draw a bunch of lines on the back of napkin and call it a plan, but that doesn't make it worth our tax dollars to study. The last thing we need is to do is repeat the past mistakes of the ICC study, which was halted twice due to blatant political interference in the study process. The result: A project that could have been delivered in 20 years was delivered some 30 years late, during which time the total costs escalated from around $400 million to around $2.4 billion, if I recall. Delaying the already glacial EIS process any further is probably the single most expensive and least effective approach you could possibly take to transportation policy. I thought maybe we'd learned that.

This is why I thought Brian's letter was a little off base and asked you not to sign on. No offense to Senator Frosh, who I think is sincere in his efforts though we obviously disagree.

Finally, and just to clarify a point of disclosure Brian raised, I am communicating with you on this on my own behalf, as a citizen of this County who has participated in most of the major transportation studies done here over the last dozen years or so, not on behalf of any client, just to set the record straight. As you all know, I was a lobbyist on transportation issues with the Greater Washington Board of Trade many years ago, and as CEO of the County Chamber we worked with you on those issues too, both major transit projects and roads, but I have not been a lobbyist for some time now. I currently run a public relations firm and am not being compensated at all for this by anyone.

I simply care about finding real solutions to our transportation crisis that work, and am not convinced that any amount of politically correct wishful thinking, no matter how desirable it may seem, will get us where we need to be. I do not care if those solutions are roads or transit, but the data need to demonstrate they will work, as clearly is the case for the CCT, the Purple Line, the widening of 270 and addition of express bus service to Frederick, and the Western Beltway connection to Virginia's HOT lanes – all of which ought to be among your top priorities over the next decade as you work in Annapolis to secure the dedicated funding we will need to do any of this. This last point, I would humbly suggest, is where we really need your leadership the most. If you want to get serious about congestion relief, we have all the data we need to make a real difference, right now, just act on it. Anything else is just posturing.

Thanks for listening. I am always available if you need any more information on this.

Richard Parsons
Parsons & Associates