The doctors are here to advise. Public health experts Dr. Travis Gayles and Dr. Leana Wen join us to share their expertise and answer your essential questions.
Maryland Governor Larry Hogan wants to add new toll lanes to the Capital Beltway and I-270 — a landmark public-private partnership that would decrease the time commuters spend sitting in traffic by 35 percent. It would also affect 1,500 properties and result in the demolition of 24 homes and four businesses.
From “smart growth” enthusiasts to environmentalists, the project is not without its detractors. We’ll explore the concerns over the governor’s plan and examine how highway expansion has affected traffic elsewhere in the Washington region.
Today’s highway show is the first of three conversations on transit concerns facing Washingtonians. This series on regional transportation is part of our Kojo 20 coverage, a celebration of Kojo Nnamdi’s 20th anniversary on WAMU 88.5.
Produced by Ruth Tam
- Tracy Hadden Loh Staff Scientist, The Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis, George Washington University; contributor to Greater Greater Washington; @busysparrow
- Emmet Tydings Vice Chair, Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance
- Robert McCartney Senior Regional Correspondent and Associate Editor, Washington Post; @McCartneyWP
- Matthew Letourneau Supervisor, Dulles District
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. As part of my 20th Anniversary on WAMU we've been focusing on key issues facing the Washington region. Next up, transportation, today is the first of three conversations about transit issues facing Washingtonians and it's a dozy. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan wants to add new toll lanes to the Capital Beltway and I-270. It would reportedly be the biggest public private partnership in the country. And if projections are accurate would cut time stuck in traffic by 35 percent, but Smart Growth enthusiasts and environmentalists have major concerns.
KOJO NNAMDILast week a new study showed that the current proposal would result in the demolition of 34 homes and four businesses. In total, 1500 properties would be affected. Joining me in studio is Robert McCartney. He is the Washington Post Senior Regional Correspondent. Robert, thank you for joining us.
ROBERT MCCARTNEYGood to be here, Kojo.
NNAMDIHow bad has traffic become on I-495, the Beltway on I-270 in Montgomery County?
MCCARTNEYWell, very bad. The American Legion Bridge, which is the connection on 495 on the Beltway between Montgomery County and Fairfax is the worst bottleneck in the entire region. And the 495 especially going from the American Legion Bridge up I-270 is a traffic jam at rush hour almost every day. And big parts of the Beltway extending into Prince George's County are backed up very very often. It's very bad scene for congestion there.
NNAMDITalk about the recent traffic jam that pushed highway traffic to the forefront of public discussion, the one back in March.
MCCARTNEYRight. There was an overturned tank truck on the American Legion Bridge going north in that rush hour, in the afternoon rush hour. And it basically paralyzed road traffic. Not just between Fairfax and Montgomery County, but extending around into Arlington, Alexandria, the District, and Prince George's County. Basically just one accident blocking that key bottleneck made it horrible on the roads not just highways, but the secondary road as well for many many hours. I mean, people -- my wife took 20 minutes to get to Tyson's from Bethesda before the accident and then took almost three hours to get back that day.
NNAMDISome lanes were closed for as long as 12 hours on that day. In 2017, Governor Hogan proposed his highway widening plan, a public private partnership. What are the details of that plan? What stretches of highway would be extended and by how much?
MCCARTNEYYeah. Most versions of the plan that are being considered right now would add two express toll lanes both to the Beltway in Maryland -- so that's in Prince George's and Montgomery County and to I-270 going north from the Beltway and to the American Legion Bridge, so a total of four lanes, two on each side. The current lanes would remain free, but the new lanes would be -- you'd pay a toll, which would vary according to the degree of congestion. Basically when things were really crowded and you really wanted to get over there on the faster express lanes, you pay more.
MCCARTNEYAnd this is basically replicating to a large extent the system that's already in place in northern Virginia on the Beltway on I-95 and in a somewhat different form on I-66. They've already built these extra toll lanes to try to relieve congestion. And now Maryland is considering doing the same.
NNAMDIWhat's the price tag for all of this and can you tell us how it would work? Who pays upfront and where does the toll money go?
MCCARTNEYThe total cost is estimated at $9 billion to $11 billion. And it's being structured as a public private partnership where basically a private company would come in and do the design and construction of it. And then reap most of the toll revenue being paid back. So Hogan has said it would ultimately not cost the tax payers anything. It's being structured this way with tolls and as a public private partnership so that Hogan doesn't have to propose to raise gasoline taxes or other taxes in order to pay for this.
MCCARTNEYThis is what's become popular now. There's so much political opposition to raising gasoline taxes or other taxes that basically all new road construction is being financed by tolls these day. You know, it would be paid by the people who use the lane. So, you know, one complaint about this is that these are Lexus lanes that only well to do people can afford to use them.
MCCARTNEYBut defenders say, look, everybody benefits, because it takes some traffic off the free lanes as well. And people maybe who don't want to use them all the time would use them in an urgent situation. The classic example being, you know, if you're trying to pick up your child after daycare or, you know, from a soccer game or something like that or if you're rushing to get to a work appointment. Then you'd be willing to pay extra even if you don't normally want to.
NNAMDIAlbert McCartney is the Washington Post Senior Regional Correspondent. He joins us in studio. Also joining me in studio is Tracy Hadden Loh. She's a Staff Scientist for The Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis at George Washington University. She's also a contributor to Greater Greater Washington. Tracy, thank you for joining us.
TRACY HADDEN LOHGreat to be here, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd Emmet Tydings is the Vice Chair of the Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance. Emmet, thank you for joining us.
EMMET TYDINGSThank you, Kojo, for having me.
NNAMDITracy, because this program would be partially paid for by private funders and revenue from new toll lanes, the project has been touted as free to tax payers. You and other Smart Growth advocates disagree with this characterization. What cost do you think the region will be responsible for down the line?
LOHWell, I mean, I think we all know at the end of the day that there's actually no such thing as a free lunch. And you know, of course, in a toll road situation, it's the users of the road that are paying. So it's absolutely not going to be free. And it will get paid for. And I think when we look at other toll roads that have been financed in this way, we're typically seeing, you know, anything from serious financial problems where, you know, the road is not meeting its projections and there is a gap in between the projected revenue and any debt that's been taken on in order to complete the facility, a gap that needs to be closed ultimately by the public. But also that realistically we don't actually know that this is going to cost 9 to 11 billion.
LOHAnd at the end of the day the way that any public private partnership is structured is going to involve some kind of sharing of risk between the public sector and the private sector. The private sector is not going to assume all of the risk unless they think that the potential reward is a substantial profit, i.e. meaning that the facility ends up costing more than it would have if it had been built by the public.
NNAMDIEmmet Tydings, there's also the study that came out last week that estimated that 1500 properties would be affected by the lane widening. I'm not exactly sure what that means, 34 homes and 4 business by the Beltway would be demolished. This comes after Governor Hogan promised no buildings would be taken over in the process. First what do we mean by affected and how does this look for Governor Hogan?
TYDINGSWell, 34 is actually the maximum potential for homes taken and the concessioners will be motivated to actually get it as close to zero as possible. To put a perspective, there was 57 homes taken with the Purple Line and 52 homes with the ICC. And in a recent I think Washington Post article 167 homes and businesses total for the Purple Line. And then affected actually means either a portion of the property will be taken as little as a foot to two feet as much as 10 feet. Some of that would be temporary to put up constructs for barriers that would refurbished later.
LOHBut I think another variable to look at there that hasn't necessarily been quantified or flagged is that there are an enormous number of community and public facilities that are in the right of way that would need to be taken. So thinking beyond homes and businesses to understanding that there are parks. There are community centers. There are trails. There are facilities that are for the entire community and that are used by the entire community that are in this right of way that would be taken in order to create toll lanes that would only be used by some.
NNAMDIHere's Tony in Silver Spring, Maryland. Tony, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TONYOkay. First a comment, Traffic will be worse in the regular lanes, and this will be both a tremendous impact negatively on the environment, and as pointed be very costly to the government. Most public private partnerships have gone belly up. My question is Nancy Kopp, the State Treasurer recommended that before a contract is signed the credit rating agencies take a look at the contracts. She's feeling that that's a very important step, sound business practice. I'd like to know what our speakers think of that proposal.
LOHI think that number one issue in question here is what is the risk to the people of Maryland involved in this project and it's absolutely critical to understand that risk as well as possible and, of course, to minimize that risk. And I think that what the caller just referred to is one of many ideas that are great in terms of getting a handle on that and approaching it responsibly.
TYDINGSWell, I'm not sure about the comment Tony made about most public private partnerships going belly up. I'm not aware that that's a fact. I'm aware, from what I know, that that's not a fact. I took a look at Fluor Corporations corporate website earlier this week and on a global scale that is a very healthy mega company doing public private partnerships in major construction around the world. I think it depends on what concessioners come in to bid on the project, what their health will be with those companies.
NNAMDIAnd Robert McCartney, Governor Hogan's projections says that widening these highways would cut time stuck in traffic by 35 percent. Some people believe that's an arbitrary figure, but do you know how that number was arrived at?
MCCARTNEYI'm afraid I do not know how that number was arrived at. And we have a model to look at right across the Potomac what the effect has been in northern Virginia. Now the data that's been provided on the impact of adding the toll lanes on the Beltway in Virginia and I-95 and 66, they are talking about improvements of less than 30 percent. I think ranging more from like 7 to about 20 percent improvements in travel times at rush hour. But that data, I should warn comes either from Trans Urban, which is the private company running the toll lanes on 495 and 95 or from VDOT, which is running -- that is the Virginia Department of Transportation, which is running the toll lanes on 66.
MCCARTNEYAnd I don't think there's any -- to my knowledge there's no independent confirmation of that data. But the percentage improvements that they're describing in travel times there are basically about 10 to 20 percent.
NNAMDIWell, I was going to introduce Matthew Letourneau later in the conversation. But since you brought up Virginia right now, I'll introduced him now. Matthew Letourneau is a Loudoun County Supervisor representing the Dulles District. He's Vice Chairman of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority Board. The numbers that Robert just quoted, Matthew.
MATTHEW LETOURNEAUI should correct. I'm not Vice Chair of the WMATA Board. I'm an alternate board member, but I am Chairman of the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission Board.
NNAMDIAt least I go that right.
LETOURNEAUYeah. That's all right. That's okay. I don't want to take credit for -- or blame depending on how it goes. Well, I think the -- yes, that's correct. Transurban provides the data on 495 and 95. VDOT, I have been pushing for greater transparency on 66 tolls. But they are using legitimate traffic analysis to gauge the impact. I think 66 and 495 are very different projects, because in the case of 495 you still have the option to use the exact same road. Except now there are additional lanes that have been constructed, which are toll only as opposed to 66, which is during certain times of the day entirely toll driven.
LETOURNEAUBut I would say overall in Virginia, I think, public sentiment is that the express lanes on the Beltway have largely been a success. I think 66 is a different question.
NNAMDITracy, Maryland commuters are not all -- you want to say something, Rob?
MCCARTNEYYeah. Let me just -- I actually have some numbers here that I jotted down before we came on. According to VDOT the increase in travel speeds on I-66, since they added the toll lanes has been 12 percent to 19 percent. And then speaking of 495 and 95 in the status from Transurban from the fourth quarter of 2018 nonpaying travelers, that is the improvement for people using the free lanes, because more people are using the toll lanes. Now this is a slightly different statistic. This is actually the increase in speeds at rush hour for nonpaying travelers has been 7 percent on 495 and 14 percent on 95. And that's Transurban data. And then just to clarify, the figure that you quoted before, Kojo, of the 30 percent improvement estimated by Hogan from the plan that's actually a 30 percent reduction in time spent stuck in traffic.
MCCARTNEYSo these are all -- it's a little bit apples to oranges comparison here of what data you're looking at.
LOHWell, and I think we also need to understand with that 35 percent figure from the Hogan proposal that we have no idea actually how accurate that number is because we don't know what price that estimate assumes for the lanes, which is obviously going to be a huge factor in how effective they are and in terms of how, you know, what percentage of the traveling public the lanes are attractive to. And, you know, realistically especially looking at the Transurban data from the hot lanes in northern Virginia, we could be talking about frankly fairly marginal improvements.
NNAMDIWell, let's talk about possible alternatives.
LETOURNEAUI was just going to say that's absolutely right, Tracy. And, I mean, obviously Hogan has a political interest in, you know, promising as high an improvement as possible in the reduction and congestion. And we don't even know how many lanes there are going to be. I mean, there's a bunch of different alternatives proposed for how many lanes there would be in Maryland. So that's -- you certainly can't rely on that statistic.
NNAMDITracy, what other transit solutions are underway or are being considered to address Maryland's growing population? Their commuters are not all drivers. Do you view Hogan's widening project as somehow in direct opposition to these other projects and proposals?
LOHI think that's important question to ask. And, you know, when we look specifically at this proposal we see that actually a significant percentage of the right of way involved in this proposal runs parallel to another very well-known public private partnership happening in the state of Maryland right now, which is the Purple Line. And the fact that MDOT is looking at going forward with this proposal before the Purple Line even opens is not necessarily the most resilient and data driven way to go about this, because the state is already committed to the Purple Line. It's definitely happening. It's going to be opening in just a few years. And, you know, many of the communities that are in the right of way of this proposal would like to see the Purple Line open and to see what happens before we talk about widening the Beltway.
NNAMDIEmmet Tydings, what do you think? Does the highway widening come at the expense other regional transit options?
TYDINGSWell, right now, Kojo, we're spending two to one on mass transit over roads. So that is one thing. I think the Purple Line it's generally recognized that mass transit will only make a very small single digit dent in congestion relief in the region. And the -- you know, this road versus mass transit argument, I don't think is an argument. I think that we need it all. And I believe it's not either or that we need both. And the solution to reducing congestion is to have both road improvements, mass transit, and, of course, the walking and bicycle facilities.
LOHWell, and actually, I think we need to look even broader than that, right? Because if we understand that we're talking about 9 to 11 billion, in order to obtain yet another single digit improvement in congestion in the region, that's pretty underwhelming. And our region's Regional Planning Organization, the Transportation Planning Board at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments recently did a long range transportation planning study where they looked at 10 different scenarios and interventions that could be done in order to improve mobility in the region. And they identified and the TPB unanimously endorsed five ideas that could have a really big impact on transportation in the region.
LOHOne of which was looking at adding a toll facility to the Beltway and to 270. Unfortunately there were two scenarios of those five that have much higher, double digit impact on congestion that ranked above. That ranked above this toll facility proposal. And that is smarter land use. That is addressing the east west jobs divide and housing divide and getting smarter about how we use the existing infrastructure we have through more efficient land use.
LETOURNEAUBut, can I add on the land use point because --
NNAMDIThis is Matthew Letourneau.
LETOURNEAUI deal with land use every day all day. What happens in a study and what happens in reality are very very different. We are, all of us, in the region -- and I was Chairman of the Council of Governments last year, are all committed to doing exactly that. Moving jobs to where people are, but that's a lot easier said than done. It takes decades and the public is not always on board with those sorts of things. In Loudoun County, we've had incredible growth and the argument has always been if you add a road network, you're just going to induce more growth.
LETOURNEAUThe reality is we have grown without adding a road network, which has left us behind the curve and left our county government on the hook for billions of dollars of transportation that we're currently spending. We have something called by right developed in Virginia. It means that you can take your existing land use and you can build on it however you wish to build on it based on what your pre-existing zoning was, which goes back 50 to 100 years. So what we see in Loudoun is a big boom. As soon as the board of supervisors stopped adding density to try stop sprawl, now by right is popping up further and further and further west, because developers are still building because there's still market demand.
LETOURNEAUAnd it's not just market demand to live by Metro stations. It's market demand for single family housing with yards and families. And people are still moving out there. So we really do need every piece of that solution. And the land use policy piece of it is by far the most difficult. And what actually happens in public behavior and market behavior is a lot different than any study that I've ever seen.
MCCARTNEYYes and following up on something Tracy said. And if you look at the other side of the region that is not west where Loudoun is, but east where Prince George's is, the Transportation Planning Board -- the number one thing they recommended as Tracy said is put the jobs where the people are and then people won't have to travel as far. Well, the biggest thing you could do would be to increase development around Metro stations in Prince George's County. Everybody agrees on that.
MCCARTNEYThere's all this space just waiting to be developed around Metro stations in Prince George's County. But there's a lot of political cultural, economic, and frankly racial resistance to that. The companies don't want to build and invest in Prince George's County, because it has a, you know, not such a great reputation. And part of that is historic red lining of a predominantly African American community. So, you know, ideally we would love to do all of our development over there and that would help solve the congestion problems, but there's a lot of resistance to that in the real world.
LOHAnd I think that's a fair point. I study --
NNAMDII got to interrupt you for a second, because we do have to take a short break. So hold that thought. We'll get right back to it when we come back. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about the region's driving problems and whether or not there should be highway expansion. We're talking with Robert McCartney. He's the Washington Post's Senior Regional Correspondent. Tracy Hadden Loh is a Staff Scientist at the Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis at George Washington University. Emmet Tydings is the Vice Chair of the Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance. And Matthew Letourneau is a Loudoun County Supervisor representing the Dulles District. I interrupted you, Tracy.
LOHThanks, Kojo. Yeah. I just wanted to say that I totally hear what you guys are saying about the land use piece being challenging, because that's what I study every day and I see how hard it is. But what we're here to talk about today is what the role of the state is, the state of Maryland in terms of coming to our region and working on our regional problems. And this is a question of how are we asking the state to put their finger on the scales.
LOHIs it to help us with the hardest thing, which is land use? Imagine what could happen with transit oriented development in Prince George's County if the state put their finger on the scales and tried to address some of the issues that are making it hard, right? And to partner with the county and all the great things that they're doing in terms of zoning reform and economic development to make it happen. Versus this proposal, this highway widening proposal, which in many ways will enshrine the east west divide and say, oh, we accept it. There's nothing we can do about it. We're actually going to dig it even deeper and entrench it even further.
NNAMDIRobert, why has northern Virginia been more amenable to toll roads than Maryland?
MCCARTNEYThat's a very good question. I think that northern Virginia is more business friendly so it's more willing to go ahead with these public private partnerships without a lot of delays. There's a bit of a more of a can do attitude in Virginia than in Maryland. I think that, you know, the traditional complaint about a lot of stuff in Maryland is that there's paralysis by analysis. The environmental movement is much stronger in Maryland than it is in Virginia. The state legislature is more centrist than the Maryland state legislature.
MCCARTNEYAnd, I mean, I could go one, but it's basically just a difference in culture. I mean, look, who was one of the -- you know, it was a Democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe, who was very, you know, pro building these express lanes. I mean, there is not a partisan divide in Virginia as much as there is in Maryland on this.
LOHBut, Bob, to that I would add a couple other things, the first of which is that 66 was originally created as a toll facility. And so it was in a unique position, in terms of where it sits, in terms of federal regulations and what the state was able to do in terms of expanding road pricing on that facility. And that the segment of the Beltway that has hot lanes in Virginia is extremely short compared to what is on the table with this Maryland proposal. And so that affects things like the total cost of the project, which, of course, affects people's willingness to take a look at it.
LOHSo, I think that it's not just a matter of, like, oh, Virginia loves driving, and Maryland just doesn't love it as much, you know. I think that there are other things that made this more feasible in Virginia that call into question whether it makes sense for Maryland.
TYDINGSOn the topic of the transit-oriented development -- or TOD, for short -- I completely agree with Tracy. And I would point out that at least the Greenbelt, if not four exits on the Beltway, with the plan currently, are going to greatly enhance transit-oriented development, particularly the Greenbelt exit. And the plan, as I understand it, will provide ingress and egress for the Greenbelt metro. Furthermore, just for listeners, to clarify, this whole issue of transportation and housing, it's actually four legs of the stool: housing, land use, jobs and transportation.
TYDINGSAnd to quote Kanti Srikanth, who is the head of transportation at the Council of Governments, just on April 11th, he says, "The ideas for this greater housing and density are great ideas, but there are three big challenges to, quote, 'to make it happen,' policy impediments, community dynamics and market forces." Community dynamics, he's really referring to people resisting greater densities in their backyard, or NIMBYism.
MCCARTNEYTalking about NIMBYs.
TYDINGSYeah, right. So, and then market forces, we are in a, you know, capitalistic, free market society. And, you know, the fact that this thing's going to be built without taxpayer money, although drivers will pay later, is really because the concessioners are in it for a profit.
LOHI think, though, that we need to really critically interrogate the idea that expanding the Beltway is something that can support transit-oriented development in places like Greenbelt, New Carrollton and Largo, which are all places where Prince Georges County has already made tremendous strides, and frankly put a lot of money on the line, and where there's already a lot of market momentum to bring new jobs to those areas.
LOHI think that I'm extremely skeptical of the idea that widening the Beltway is what's going to support the land use transformation there. And I don't see a chain of logic by which that makes sense. And I think that's something we need to ask really hard questions about. And that's why I think there's a lot of fear at the state level about the idea of needing county consent in order to get this project done. Because if it was about what was actually good for these local areas and what they wanted, this project probably wouldn't happen.
NNAMDIWant to bring Virginia back into the conversation by way of Arthur, who's in Rockville, Maryland. But Arthur, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ARTHURHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. (clears throat) I have, actually, two questions. One, isn't this following up to what was said already? Isn't the underlying assumption of the governor that Northern Virginia is now, and in the future, the regional economic engine where good, high-paying jobs will be? And Montgomery County and Prince George's County will be the economic backorders? So, the aim, basically, of this project is to get people to their Virginia jobs faster, and...
NNAMDIWhy would the governor of Maryland want to do that?
ARTHURWell, you know, you have a lot of people working here. You've become a bedroom community for Northern Virginia. Basically, what...
NNAMDI(overlapping) It sounds like a conspiracy theory, Robert.
MCCARTNEYI think there's a lot of truth in the analysis that you're making in the sense that I think there's a very big risk right now that Northern Virginia is going to become much more economically dynamic than suburban Maryland, especially following the Amazon HQ2 decision. But I certainly don't think that that is Governor Hogan's intent. I think what he's trying to do, to a large extent, is reduce congestion on the Beltway and on I-270 in order to make suburban Maryland a more attractive place for companies to invest and people to live, so that they'll be more likely to put investment in new jobs in Maryland. I don't think he -- but I do think that it could be that the effect will be, if this goes through, that it would make it easier for people to get to jobs in Virginia.
NNAMDIKind of like your comment, Matt.
LETOURNEAUYeah, as a Virginian, it's not my place to tell Maryland what to do on something like this, and I won't. Although I will agree with the caller's analysis about what's happening in the market, and add that Lowden County actually led the Commonwealth of Virginia in job growth. So, it's happening even further out. But...
LOH(overlapping) As well as housing growth.
LETOURNEAUWell, yes, although jobs actually at a greater percentage. But the District actually leads in housing growth. But, anyway, even with the additional investments, I think one of the things we need to understand is the number of lane miles as part of that 2045 study that was referenced that will be congested during rush hour. Even with build out of everything that's on the books, increases by 43 percent by 2045. And part of that is because most of the money going to roads, over 60 percent of it is going for operations and maintenance. It's not going, actually, to build more roads.
LETOURNEAUAnd the region is growing. We're seeing tremendous job growth in this region, population growth up to 7 million from 5.7 million by 2045. And so I don't like these discussions that pit two things against each other, because I actually think there is a model. We talked about what's happened in Virginia where we have express lanes. Well, look at how Tyson's Corner is being transformed, and you are seeing a tremendous amount of mixed use there.
LETOURNEAUWe'd like to see some of that growing further up to 67 into Lowden and into the other Metro stations, where it's hard to get capital to build right now. But in that area, which is sort of its own mini city, we're seeing increases both in the amount of lane miles that are being built, reduced congestion, and we're actually seeing an increase in ridership. One of the few bright spots for the Metro system is the Silver Line corridor, as you get out to Wiehle and Tysons, even though they haven't quite met projections. So, I think there is a model out there where everything grows. And I think in Virginia, that's what we've tried to do.
LOHAnd I think that's a really great point, which raises the question of why there isn't a transit alternative for 270 in this proposal.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Maggie, who writes: I'm all for expanding lanes, but they should not be tolled. The American Legion Bridge has been a troubled issue for years, and I'm all for additional bridges across the river. I understand that leaders in Maryland, DC and Virginia have been anti-new bridges because of cost. We need to have a macro focus on this issue. Nothing is going to get better before we expand lanes, build additional bridges and update the way that interchanges work. Interchanges are what really cause backups. There must be easier ways to move from one road, i.e. 267, to another, i.e. 495.
LETOURNEAUCan I take that one? So, we started a process in Lowden to actually plan for another bridge crossing, which is something that has not been well received in Montgomery County. But the 28 corridor makes a lot of sense to actually expand into Maryland, and the caller actually hit on it. It's not just about bridge capacity over the Potomac. It's about what happens for east-west movements as people try to get to the few crossings that we have. So, if you look at Route 15 that goes up to Point of Rocks, Maryland right now, it's a parking lot from the bridge there, all the way down into Leesburg.
LETOURNEAUThen if you look at the American Legion Bridge, you've got nothing in between. So, you've got over 20 miles where you can't get in between them. There's this tiny little old ferry called White's Ferry. It's actually very amusing. It's a technology out of the '20s and '30s that is at capacity and can't run every day, because so many people are trying to get across. And so I think it's not just about widening the American Legion Bridge. It's looking to see what makes sense in terms of traffic patterns to actually put some infrastructure in place to where people are actually going, where they're growing, where there's a place for them to go, and where jobs are coming.
TYDINGSAnd the owner of White's Ferry has talked about shutting it down, by the way.
LETOURNEAUYeah, that’s right.
NNAMDIHere is Sally in Rockville, Maryland. Sally, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SALLYThank you. I am so pleased to hear so many facets of this problem being discussed, and what I'd like to introduce is the idea of induced demand. I wish every citizen of Maryland would read about induced demand. It is when you provide more of something, people are more likely to use it. So, rather than thinking of traffic as a liquid, which requires a certain volume of space to pass through at a given rate, induced demand demonstrates that traffic is more like a gas expanding to fill up the space. In other words, what Governor Hogan is proposing really won't work. It may make this improvement -- which is debatable how much -- in the first few years. But after that, it will completely go away, just like when I-270 was widened last time.
TYDINGSSo, I actually don't buy into the induced demand. I think that growth creates the problem. And we have, at the Council of Governments, they've been tracking, forecasting growth in our region jobs, housing, land use for about 60 years now. In every round -- I think it's done every four years -- every round has underestimated the growth coming to Washington, DC, except one time, three years during the Great Recession. So, we always get more people. And every municipality want the jobs without the people. That's a big issue.
LOHI do think...
MCCARTNEYYeah, I do buy the induced demand argument but I think that the counter, the conclusions you've got to draw for that is, okay, so if you're not going to build new roads out there to deal with what's a really serious traffic problem, then you have to have a really holistic, you know, very far-reaching plan to basically restructure -- or at least reorient, to a significant degree -- how growth happens in the Washington region.
MCCARTNEYYou basically have to say, okay, all the new people who are going to come to the Washington region are going to live in the core of the city. They're going to live in multifamily housing. They're not going to live in single-family houses with yards and be dependent on cars. They're going to be packed in in higher density neighborhoods in the core and using mass transit. And smart growth advocates and transit-oriented development advocates, that's their vision for what's going to happen.
MCCARTNEYAnd I think that's fine, but you'd have to get everybody to agree to do that. And until you do -- and it's been proved to be very difficult to do that, partly because of NIMBYism, partly because some people want to live in single-family homes with big yards and be dependent on cars. So, unless you can basically transform how people want to do growth in the future, you're going to have this induced demand issue.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break, but when we come back, we will also be talking with the -- since we've been talking a lot about Prince Georges County, we'll have a brief conversation with the mayor of Greenbelt, Maryland about this. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about transportation in this region. And the number of people who would like to join this conversation is one of the reasons we're going to be having at least three conversations on this issue, because a lot of people would like to participate. Joining us now by phone is Emmett Jordan. We've been talking a great deal about Prince Georges County, and Emmett Jordan is the mayor of Greenbelt, Maryland. Mayor Jordan, thank you for joining us.
EMMETT JORDANHey, good afternoon, Kojo.
NNAMDIYou have expressed concern about the governor's highway expansion plan. Why?
JORDANWell, we're very concerned about these proposals. Many of my residents are skeptical or opposed to the proposal. And my city council's on record in opposition. I've been working with neighboring mayors from other municipalities along the Beltway, and we've been discussing solutions and trying to heighten awareness about the possible consequences. We just don’t think that adding more lanes is the long-term solution, especially toll lanes. As was mentioned earlier, we think the additional lanes will actually induce more traffic into our communities at the Greenbelt.
JORDANWe're located at the intersection of the Baltimore Washington Parkway, and University of Maryland is right next door, along with NASA Goddard. And, you know, if there are toll lanes on the Beltway, drivers will cut through our city streets, you know, to try and avoid the tolls. And we maintain these streets with our city funding. Also, you know, just more lanes will definitely increase the noise, air pollution and storm water runoff. So, there's a whole slew of reasons why we are skeptical and in opposition to these...
NNAMDI(overlapping) What about the job that the state has done in communicating this proposal to residents of Greenbelt and answering questions?
JORDANWell, I was about to say, you've been talking about these proposals for the four lanes, as if they're a foregone conclusion. But the state of Maryland, MDOT, they held one round of public hearings about six months ago, and they're currently holding some public hearings. I attended the previous round, and will be attending one that's coming up in a few days. But a lot of people are saying that MDOT could have been more proactive about engaging local jurisdictions in Prince Georges County and Montgomery County in this process.
NNAMDIWell, Tracy Hadden Loh has been talking about what about if the state's not going to put its finger on the scale, that local lawmakers should have the ability to reject state transit projects in their jurisdictions. Do you share that view?
JORDANWell, I think it's an important view to consider. Traffic is definitely a regional problem, with regional implications. And, you know, I think, you know, the state -- we really need to be thinking -- making sure that we're setting up the right kind of incentives. And the idea is to put more focus on connecting communities. You know, creating walkable, bikeable neighborhoods, and actually investing in the infrastructure that we currently have, Metro rail stations, the bus network, encouraging people to get out of their cars and use mass transit. And there's some great ideas, things that are happening now.
JORDANOf course, the idea of high occupancy vehicle lanes and express bus lanes, that's something that's worked in New York City for the longest time for the approaches to the Manhattan Tunnels. But Mayor Bowser, I believe, recently made the circulator buses in Washington, DC free.
JORDANAnd what about -- what if parking was less expensive or free at Metro stations, or the reduced fares that they've been talking about all weekend? These are the kinds of incentives that we need to set up so that we can invest more resources to improve transportation infrastructure. And we're not going to be able to build our way out of our traffic problems in the DC region. Our investments need to be more strategic.
NNAMDITracy Hadden Loh, a more comprehensive approach is what the mayor seems to be suggesting?
LOHYeah, and I have to say, I completely agree. You know, when you look at the study that MDOT COG did of ten possible improvements that we could make to regional transportation, the number one most effective at reducing traffic congestion -- which is supposedly what these lanes are supposed to address -- was actually to do what's called transportation demand management, or TDM, as opposed to putting down new impervious surface and building new facilities.
NNAMDIWe heard from Mayor Patrick Wojahn of College Park. He writes: on Baltimore Avenue in College Park, we have decreased traffic, while our population has gone up. How? By building more housing for students, faculty and staff closer to the University of Maryland campus so that thousands of people who used to have to drive to campus can get there by walking, bicycling or taking transit. Addressing land use has worked for us in College Park, and it's the main thing that will work in our region. Care to comment on that, Emmett Tydings?
TYDINGSWell, if I might back up just to what Tracy said for a moment, that the scenario -- you know, there was actually, I think, 71, when we started out, and we went down to 10, and then to 7. But the TDM, by the way, included some things that had assumptions in there that were very unrealistic, or just kind of pie-in-the-sky. For instance, employers subsidizing up to 90 or 100 percent of the commuters' parking and transit passes. So, I'm sorry, Kojo, what was the question on the first one?
LOHWell, speaking to what Mayor Wojahn said (all talking at once)...
NNAMDIExactly right. What Wojahn shared about land use.
TYDINGSSo, land use, again, and quoting Kanti earlier, so everybody agrees that a mix of jobs, the ultimate, the best mix of jobs, housing, land use and transportation will produce the greatest results. There's just so many barriers. There's cost on projects. There's, of course, the NIMBYism we mentioned earlier. I'm completely -- so I'm working in my community on a bike path that's four-and-a-half miles long to the Shady Grove Metro, a dedicated use facility for a community of 35,000 people in (word?) Maryland. I think that's a great way to go.
TYDINGSVery much working on pedestrian-friendly transportation, but we do need all of these things. I just don't -- I don't buy into this it's an either-or. I think Mr. McCartney alluded to it. We need a full mix.
LOHBut I think what's happening in College Park is a great example of what the potential of smart growth is. That, Bob, it's actually not what you described, like this drastic, like, everybody has to live downtown in multifamily housing packed together, and no one gets to have a car, right. If we look at what's happening in College Park, we can see that, actually, lots of people are still going to get to live in and own single-family houses. But that there're also now going to be other options for people who want them, which is a bigger chunk of the market than we might think.
LOHAnd that even making these kinds of marginal changes in terms of the housing market and the land market and bringing those things close to jobs, even those kinds of marginal changes can have huge positive impacts on traffic congestion.
NNAMDIWe heard from John in Bethesda, who emailed: I live in Maryland, and I support the toll lane expansion. And an important facet of this is the massive infrastructural improvements that would follow it. In Virginia, every bridge on 495 was rebuilt to make this possible, and now they're safe and good for another 50 years. The road will completely be rebuilt to contrast this with today's method for funding, when just refurbishing one bridge causes financial handwringing in Annapolis. Care to comment, Matt?
LETOURNEAUWell yeah. I think what's happened when you do these types of projects is that you do improve the base infrastructure, as well, around it. But I think one aspect that's missing from this conversation is affordability of housing. No one's mentioned that, because what we see when you have transit-oriented development is those tend to be very expensive units. And certainly in Virginia, that has been the case.
LETOURNEAUAnd so you can do these things, and you should do these things. And both mayors who called in are friends of mine, and I completely respect their opinion. And, again, I'm not weighing in on the issue of whether Maryland should do this or not. But you can do things in College Park, perhaps, that you can't do in places like Lowden and Fairfax Counties. And, also, you have housing prices and land prices that far exceed what you have in some of the outer suburbs.
LETOURNEAUAnd so, you have to have solutions that work for both. The reason why the Washington region has been such a -- has seen incredible job growth is because of so many people coming from all over, as far as Pennsylvania, to commute here. And so you have to have solutions that work for everybody, which is why you should continue the investment in our Metro system, which has been underfunded, historically, for years. We should look at bus lanes. We should look at ways to increase multimodal, but it doesn't mean you should also stop building roads.
NNAMDIHere's Josh Tolken in College Park, Maryland. Josh, you're on the air. We only have about a minute left.
JOSH TOLKENThank you. I just wanted to flag that Maryland has a commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent by 2035. And it's way behind in its goals around transportation. This highway is being proposed at a massive scale. And from what we can tell at the Sierra Club, we're seeing very low evidence that climate change was any consideration whatsoever for MDOT, and is extremely concerning. Its 2019. Climate change should be at the forefront of our thinking, and right now, it looks like it's just an afterthought for Maryland.
NNAMDIAnd that's definitely one of the topics we'll be talking about in a future discussion. Emmett Tydings?
TYDINGSFaster moving traffic, of course, will reduce the emissions in cars. The worst emissions are at the slower end of the 15 mile an hour. The influx of electric vehicles, and including the number-one fastest selling new brand in North America, Tesla, up 226 percent last year, investing in a 15 million square foot facility that is going to be the largest solar array in the world. And so they're actually going into production on the manufacturing of batteries to even be low footprint, let alone the cars.
TYDINGSSo, you're going to see the reduction of emissions in speeds by cars, and also in the growth of the -- you saw the E-tron commercial at the Super Bowl and Volvos. Was it Volvo? I'm sorry, Audi's commitment to go to electric vehicles.
LOHBut I think given all the changes that are happening in terms of technology in the vehicle sector, that's another reason to ask why we are trying to rush this proposal instead of fully understand how technology is going to work with this. Especially with the potential for automated vehicles, we want to make sure that we are not digging the C&O Canal , right, as the first steam engines are rolling out of Baltimore.
NNAMDI(overlapping) We haven't even gotten to autonomous vehicles, and we're just about out of time. Can you answer this one quickly, Matt? Why don't they just toll all the lanes? That would reduce congestion, encourage carpooling, telework and transit use and cost the state very little.
LETOURNEAUBecause taxpayers already paid for those lanes, but there's only so much money that people have to actually drive them.
NNAMDIMatthew Letourneau, thank you so very much for joining us. Emmett Tydings, thank you for joining us.
TYDINGSThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDITracy Hadden Loh, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd Robert McCartney, always a pleasure.
MCCARTNEYGood to be here.
NNAMDIOur show on highway widening was produced by Ruth Tam. As we said, it's the first of three shows we'll be doing on transportation in this region. Coming up tomorrow, what happens when a beloved neighborhood institution closes its doors? We'll discuss the hole businesses leave behind when they leave a community. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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