Thursday, November 12, 2009

I-270 Issue Far From Over

The Montgomery County Council has signaled a consensus in favor of Council President Phil Andrews’ proposal to add two reversible lanes on I-270. But this issue is nowhere close to a resolution.

The Washington Post reported that the council unanimously agreed on adding reversible lanes that would be subject to tolls for single drivers. This broad agreement is noteworthy considering the prior positions of some of the Council Members. Andrews and Marc Elrich were vehement opponents of the ICC. Nancy Floreen, Mike Knapp and George Leventhal were first elected in 2002 as part of Doug Duncan’s pro-ICC End Gridlock slate. Andrews and Elrich have usually favored limiting growth, while Floreen, Knapp and Leventhal supported most elements of the 2003 Annual Growth Policy, which temporarily abolished project area traffic tests. Yet, all of the above Council Members favor widening I-270. That level of agreement far surpasses their differing views on many issues, including the best mode for the CCT and other matters unrelated to transportation.

Relatively little political opposition to the project has surfaced in the areas that will contain it. That fact is obvious from the support of Council Members Andrews (who represents Rockville and Gaithersburg) and Knapp (who represents Germantown north to the Frederick County border) and every member of the Frederick Board of County Commissioners. The four Senators who represent those areas – Rob Garagiola (D-15), Jennie Forehand (D-17), Nancy King (D-39) and Alex Mooney (R-3) – all favor widening. Most Delegates from those areas do too, although some of them have sent mixed messages. The loudest opposition has come from bloggers in D.C. and Baltimore, a fact that was not lost on Montgomery County Council Members and was one reason for the failure of their opposing email campaigns.

The financial obstacles to the I-270 project may wind up being more serious than the political obstacles. Half of the ICC’s $2.4 billion in funding came from toll-backed bonds. The enormous levels of the tolls being charged to pay back those bonds are creating sticker shock for some ICC supporters and are giving fresh ammo to opponents. Even a modest version of I-270 widening akin to the one proposed by Andrews will cost more than the ICC. How much higher will the I-270 tolls have to be to pay off its bonds? On top of all that, the Maryland Transportation Authority (MdTA), which administers the state’s toll facilities, has significant financial problems and will have difficulty paying just for its system preservation. It cannot afford another bond issue without a General Assembly vote increasing its statutory debt limit.

Another possible source for I-270 funding is the Transportation Trust Fund (TTF), but it has even bigger problems than MdTA. The current Consolidated Transportation Program is scheduled to spend less over the coming six years than was spent nine years ago. A new state Spending Affordability Briefing shows no expected improvement, saying:

Future levels of federal funding are uncertain due to federal revenues not being able to sustain prior levels of spending without an increase in the gas tax or other revenues. The current Consolidated Transportation Program (CTP) does not provide funding for the construction of the Purple or Red Line or the Corridor Cities Transitway even though the department continues to move forward to obtain federal approval of these three major mass transit initiatives. The current capital program already assumes an economic recovery, leaving little capacity for new projects to be added.
And so the real impediment to the I-270 project is the same barrier to all the other major projects around the state: no money and no political will in Annapolis to raise any. County Executive Ike Leggett, the Montgomery County Council, the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Baltimore Committee have all called for hikes in the gas tax to pay for transportation. When Council President Andrews repeated that call, a representative of the Governor said this:

“It’s certainly not something we’re considering right now,” said Gov. Martin O’Malley’s spokesman Shaun Adamec, who added that there was little “appetite or desire” to raise taxes in the current economic climate.
Finally, here is something I-270 supporters and opponents have in common. No matter what project(s) they want, they won’t be getting any of them any time soon.