On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
In light of major traffic problems, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has put the expansion of I-495 and I-270 at the center of his transportation policy.
Legislators in the region, though, are pushing back against the proposed plan. Some are saying that more studies need to be done, while others say that local jurisdictions should be able to have a say in highway construction. We hear the latest.
Produced by Mark Gunnery
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. Later in the broadcast you will meet Lewis Ferebee, the newly appointed Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools, who is awaiting confirmation. But first Maryland Governor Larry Hogan has long a proponent of expanding highways in the Washington region especially I-495 and I-270. Some legislators, though, are pushing back against those plans. Joining me in studio is Dominique Maria Bonessi. She is the Maryland Reporter with WAMU. Dominique, thank you so much for joining us.
DOMINIQUE MARIA BONESSIThanks, Kojo.
NNAMDIHighway expansion has been central to the governor's transportation plans. What exactly is he trying to do on I-495 and I-270?
BONESSIRight. So what we know so far about Hogan's proposal is this is a plan to widen 495 and 270. It's been researched over the past 25 years that's according to transportation secretary Peter Ron. But right now there are 15 models to widen both these routes and seven of those include toll roads. Some of those models involve widening the roads by constructing new roads along the right of ways, so alongside those current existing roads. The plan is anywhere between nine to $11 billion and the governor says he intends to do this without raising taxes and through a public private partnership. What they call a P3.
NNAMDISo that's how he intends to pay for it.
BONESSIYeah. I mean, the P3 legislation was established in 2013, which allows Maryland to partner with a private industry to share the cost in public infrastructure projects. So, for example, the construction of the Purple Line is a P3 project as well.
NNAMDIGive us some sense of just how bad traffic is on the Capital Beltway and on I-270.
BONESSISo I can speak to this very well personally. I live in Anne Arundel County and my commute on a bad day from Anne Arundel County to WAMU's offices takes about an hour and a half. And I don't even like to take the highway sometimes. I try to take the backroads. And according to transportation secretary, Pete Ron, because so many people are using Waze and Google and Tom Tom and all these different, you know, apps for driving, they see a lot of traffic on these backroads through D.C., backroads through Montgomery County. And he's saying, We want to take those, you know, people on those neighborhood roads and get them back on a reliable system on a reliable road where it's a little bit wider so people can move faster.
NNAMDIJoining us now by phone is Marc Korman. He is a democratic delegate representing the 16th District, Montgomery County in the Maryland House of Delegates. Marc Korman, thank you for joining us.
MARC KORMANThanks for having me on.
NNAMDIYou are one of the legislators pushing back against highway expansion specifically through supporting a bill proposed by your fellow Montgomery County Delegate, Alfred Carr. What would that bill do?
KORMANSo Delegate Carr's bill would just require that for that public private partnership process that was just being described to continue. We already know which of those 15, what you called models, but are really alternatives, is selected and so that's how it worked with the Purple Line. With the Purple Line there was already what's called a locally preferred alternative that had to come out of that alternatives review process. And then at that time we went forward with the public private partnership.
KORMANAnd the reason that's important is before we gave away public infrastructure for 50 years, we should make sure we understand what it is we're actually doing and getting into and what the project really is. And we just don't have those details yet. Right now it's very pie in the sky. This is going to solve all our traffic problems. It's not going to cost the state any money. We're not going to have to take any homes. These are the claims of the administration. And we just want to see some more details on that before we commit to a 50 year public private partnership.
NNAMDIAnd the bill that your colleague is proposing would change the P3 legislation by requiring an environmental impact study to be completed before the department of transportation selects its private contractors. What do you think that can accomplish?
KORMANSo under the law they already have to do an EIS, an environmental impact statement. So that process is already happening. Part of the environmental impact statement is reviewing those 15 alternatives that were described and selecting one as the project to go forward with. And so we want to make sure that's selected before the, you know, private agreement is entered into so we actually know what this agreement is. We just need a little bit more detail. For example, the number nine to 11 billion was cited. We don't really know what backs that number up.
KORMANWe don't understand what that number is representing. If you use Virginia's numbers, for example, in terms of their recently announced project for the same mileage, it would cost us over $15 billion for the product of the governor's describe. So we just need a little bit more detail. And the EIS process allows us to get that detail before we enter this long term private agreement.
NNAMDIMaryland Department of Transportation Secretary, Pete Ron, has called the expansion of the Capital Beltway and I-270 necessary. What's your response to him and the many commuters who find the traffic terrible?
KORMANWell, I find the traffic terrible. You know, when I have to drive on the Beltway and 270, which, you know, sometimes I drive to work when I'm in Annapolis. And then the nine months of the year we're not here, I'm a Metro rider, but I'm also frustrated by the traffic. The key question is how do we move the people. It's not how do add more pavement to the roads. And in some places that could be road improvements or capacity changes. And in other places it might be investing more in transit or other types of methods. But the goal should be to move people not figure out how to build more roads.
NNAMDIThe Maryland Department of Transportation also say that this bill would delay the project for a year. It would reduce private partners who are interested in the project. And potentially cost an additional $350 million or more in spending. How do you respond to that?
KORMANI think the fiscal note analysis from our non-partisan Department of Legislative services rebuts a lot of that. And just explains there's a lot of uncertainty to those figures that the administration is siting that the Department of Legislative Services analysis is important, because they don't have a dog in the fight unlike the administration, which obviously favors its own approach. All we're saying is we need to know more before we can move forward with the project. And, again, they already have to do an EIS. That's already happening. We just want to make sure that's done in the right way and we have the details we need to figure out what the best way is, again, to move the people.
NNAMDIWe're not hearing from any of them right now. But how do you respond to locals who want to see their commutes shortened and see highway expansion as a positive step in that direction?
KORMANWell, I want to see their commute shortened too. That's why we want to make sure we have a product that's actually going to do that and solve the problem. So, for example, the model for these toll roads is that you pay, right, extra to ride in this lane that has free flowing traffic. Well, if you're going to be incentivized to do that, if you can afford to do it that means there still has to be a lot of traffic in the general purpose lane, the ones that aren't tolled. So is this even going to solve the problem that the governor and the secretary claim they're trying to solve. It's very unclear if that's the case.
NNAMDIWe got a tweet from the Maryland Sierra Club. We oppose Governor Hogan's proposal to add hundreds of miles of toll lanes on our highways. The science is clear. More highways bring more traffic and pollution and take away attention to real transit solutions. And then here is Sully in -- Sally, I should say, in Rockville, Maryland. Sally, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SALLYHi. I just want to talk about the inequity of toll roads. The HD102 hearing last week in Annapolis, one of the speakers, who is in favor of HD102, the bill that would allow counties to have input in toll roads said -- and I'm just paraphrasing -- that the majority of users of the variable rate toll roads, which are also called Lexus lanes, because they become so expensive like $40 from Frederick to Shady Groves is one of the estimates. The majority are upper income users.
SALLYThe middle and lower income people can't afford those rates and don't use toll roads. So this is so inequitable, because you're leaving out a lot -- a huge portion of the population. They will not benefit from it and as the speaker just said, they will be still left in the congested lanes. When I-270 was --
NNAMDIWell, I guess the logic is that if there are people using those toll lanes regardless of what their income level is, then the other non-toll lanes are likely to be less congested. That would be the argument.
KORMANThen why would somebody pay the toll?
NNAMDIThat would be made. Well, that's a whole other issue. But our caller did mention another bill in the legislature, Dominique, that has been put forward by Delegate Brooke Lierman of Baltimore city and it's getting support from delegates in Prince George's and Montgomery Counties, what would that legislation do?
BONESSIRight. So that bill would allow basically county governments to veto over toll roads being constructed on their highways. So this requires, you know, the state to go to these counties' governments and ask them if it's okay for them to add these toll roads before the projects even start taking place.
NNAMDIAnd what do you think about that legislation, Marc Korman?
KORMANWell, I think it's important to point out that that is a policy that already exists for the eastern shore counties of Maryland.
NNAMDIEight counties, right?
KORMANThey have a say now in where, for example, a second bay bridge crossing would go. So for the eastern shore side of the bay, the local governments would have a say in where the bridge is. But for the western shore side the sort of central Maryland side, they wouldn't have a say. And that doesn't make a lot of sense. So we think it makes sense to extend the existing policy to all counties. Why should only the eastern shore counties have a say in where toll facilities go?
NNAMDISharon in Silver Spring, Maryland wants to have her say. Sharon, you're turn.
SHARONHi, Kojo. Thanks for having me on. Yes. I've lived in, you know, Montgomery County my whole life. And this is a beautiful area. And people take very seriously their neighborhoods and how wonderful it is. And to wipe out -- what this would do it would upset me. I've gone to several meetings and the people in charge of the meetings, you know, Maryland Park and Planning and all this jazz, they don't even really want to hear from the people. There weren't any meaningful back and forths. It was -- you know, they're sort of trying to keep all this away from the people and the people don't want this.
SHARONThe majority of the people in the project area don't want high cost Lexus lanes and toll roads. They want to keep, you know, the historic decency. Silver Spring was where the presidents would come and vacation and it's beautiful. People have neighborhoods and they have parks. And this would basically two -- you know, two lanes on either side and it could even go further.
SHARONIt would destroy neighborhoods. It would destroy parks. And to put toll lanes all the way, 70 miles with only something like five miles, what I heard is what wouldn't have toll lanes. I don't know how that wouldn't slow traffic down. Every time I go through a toll lane, it slows traffic down. So it doesn't make sense. And they're not keeping the neighborhoods. They don't really -- it doesn't seem like they care about the neighborhoods.
NNAMDIWell, Dominique Maria Bonessi, whenever we mention Governor Hogan's name on the Politics Hour on Fridays this is usually preceded by the word popular. And so if this governor is that popular and I guess he was not that popular in Montgomery County even in the election, where is -- why all of this opposition to his plans?
BONESSIWell, I mean, Montgomery County, yes, is the most blue district in our state. So we're going to be seeing a lot of people coming out against him. I'm trying to remember a poll that I was looking at that said his approval was something in the 40 to 50 percentage range in Montgomery County, which is, you know, still not bad.
NNAMDINot hearing from any of those people today.
BONESSIBut, yeah. So there are a lot of things that, you know, Governor Hogan while he does have a lot of popularity in the state among democrats and republicans, this is one issue that, you know, democrats are not going to be scared to push back on him for.
NNAMDIHere is Becky in Silver Spring, Maryland. Becky, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BECKYHi there. I've done a little reading about traffic when all this started. And it's my understanding that endless traffic studies are shown that when roads are widened -- in fact, there's a pent up demand of people that go and immediately fill up that road. For example, me, I wouldn't drive on the Beltway now. But if the road got widened, I'm like, Oh look. There's more opening. So widening roads does not reduce traffic. It merely collects more traffic and it just doesn't work. This is really about getting money for the private partnership. And it isn't going to help us. And we're going to have acres and acres of slabs of concrete causing more environmental damage.
NNAMDIMarc Korman, what do you see as the best solution for the congestion on I-270 and I-495?
KORMANI really think it's a combination of things. I mean, first of all I think transit is a big part of it. And some of the alternatives do look at transit options. And we need to look at those in a serious way. There's also areas of the Beltway and 270 that can be improved. And in fact, right now, Governor Hogan and his administration are investing about $100 million in a congestion management plan on 270 that, you know, does some things like that to try to improve the situation in spot improvement areas as opposed to adding two lanes in each direction.
KORMANWe need that kind of same effort and concentration on the American Legion Bridge on 495. But, you know, the last caller was right. Typically there's induced demand when you widen a roads. That's what happened with 270 the last time it was widened in the 90s. And the engineers came back and said, Wow that filled up a lot faster than we expected. The only way to keep it from not filling up is by putting on high priced tolls. The only way those can work as an economic model is if the general purpose lanes that normal folks can ride in are gridlocked.
NNAMDIHere is Becky in Rockville, Maryland. Becky, you're turn.
BECKYI live very close to 270. And we've lived here for a long time. So we've lived through the previous widening and it certainly did not help traffic. I very strongly oppose adding lanes to 270 in Rockville. There are already 12 lanes of traffic. And as other people have said, adding lanes actually adds traffic. To paraphrase a line from a well-known movie, "If you build it, they will come." So more traffic will come and it's certainly not going to help problem. I think that Maryland needs to be innovative. It needs to look to the future. And it needs to come up with making mass transit more user friendly and more reliable. And figure out ways that will work for, you know, 20 years from now and 30 years from now.
NNAMDIOkay, Dominique Maria Bonessi just mentioned that there are several counties in the state of Maryland from which the state has to get permission before it can do anything like this in those counties. And the bill put forward by Delegate Brooke Lierman of Baltimore would do just that for Prince George's and Montgomery Counties. How much momentum do you think that bill has in the general assembly?
BONESSISo I think, because of these bills kind of happening all at once, you have Delegate Carr's bill and now this bill, you're going to see people sort of rallying around both of them. And in the House and in the Senate we do see a large democratic majority. Montgomery County has a lot of pull in both those chambers. So, you know, it's very possible we could see both these bills pass in the House and the Senate. Now when it hits the governor's desk --
NNAMDIMarc Korman, would there -- do you think those bills would be veto proof by the time they hit the governor's desk?
KORMANWell, first of all, I just want to point out that as a republican senator from Anne Arundel County, who introduced a bill for his county to have permission to have -- to give permission for toll facilities, this is not a partisan issue. It's a question of do the local governments get a say in where toll facilities go. I don't know, you know, if these bills will pass or not, if they'll have veto override majorities. But what we do know is that we actually want to work with the governor to improve the congestion situation and move people. And we hope that these bills can, you know, help us lead to that conversation with the governor.
NNAMDIMarc Korman is the democratic delegate representing the 16th District Montgomery County in the Maryland House of Delegates. Thank you for joining us.
KORMANThanks so much for having me.
NNAMDIAnd Dominique Maria Bonessi is the Maryland Reporter for WAMU. Dominique, good to see you.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back you will meet Lewis Ferebee, the newly appointed Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools. He's the acting chancellor awaiting confirmation. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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