On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Maryland has some big transportation proposals and projects on the table.
The state is considering a proposal for a high-speed “floating” train, known as the Northeast Maglev. The company says that the train will run at a top speed of 311 miles per hour, and would run from the District into Baltimore in around fifteen minutes. This would be the first leg of a train system to travel all the way into New York in less than an hour.
Maryland is also moving forward with plans to expand the Beltway and I-270. The state plans to install two High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes in either direction, starting with parts of I-270 and I-495. To use the lanes, drivers will pay a variable fare, depending on the traffic volume. Vehicles with three or more passengers can use the lanes for free.
But, as more people are working from home, is this the right time for these plans? And what will this mean for you and your community?
Produced by Richard Cunningham
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. Although commuting has slowed down during the pandemic, Maryland is undertaking some major transportation proposals and projects. The state is considering building a high-speed railway known as Maglev between D.C. and Baltimore. This would be the first phase of a rail line that would travel between the District and New York within an hour.
KOJO NNAMDIAdditionally Maryland's Department of Transportation is moving forward on plans to add four toll lanes on a portion of the Capital Beltway and I-270 in order to alleviate traffic congestion on the highways. We'll start with our conversation about the Maglev. Joining us now is Luz Lazo, Washington Post Transportation Reporter. Luz, thank you for joining us.
LUZ LAZOThank you for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDILuz, we've been hearing a lot about the Northeast Maglev. First, what is Maglev? And how does it work?
LAZOSure, yes. I am not an expert on the technology, but I'll tell you what I know. It's kind of like a super bullet train. And basically the system uses like powerful magnetic forces that lift and propel trains about four inches above guideway and the train goes at speeds of up to 375 miles per hour. Now the train that's being proposed to from D.C. to Baltimore in about 15 minutes will travel at a maximum speed of about 311 miles per hour. So that's quite fast, and that's something that we have in the United States -- and actually not in many countries yet.
NNAMDIOkay. So we first heard about this a few years ago. And Maryland has been considering a proposal to build the first leg of the Northwest Maglev. You mentioned running from D.C. to Baltimore. How long would that trip take?
LAZOThe trip from D.C. to Baltimore is about 15 minutes.
NNAMDIWhoo. That would be quick.
LAZOIt will be fast. And, you know, in the Washington area the train will travel about 75 percent underground. It will run parallel to the Baltimore Washington Parkway for those familiar with that area and will be underneath, you know, in proximity to homes and schools and parks. And most of that will be underground. This type of technology has been tested in other parts in the world. The one that -- the technology that's being proposed here is modeled after the Maglev train in Japan. But recently I read that China has been testing Maglev technology and that train had a record speed of 400 miles per hour. So this is technology that a lot of countries are exploring.
NNAMDIWould this be the first high-speed Maglev train proposed in this country? And if so, why has the U.S. lagged so far behind on this?
LAZOYes. This will be the first Maglev technology in the country and also the first high-speed train in the United States. We haven't been able to catch up with some of the high-speed railroads in other parts of the world. And so this will be definitely something new.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Luz Lazo of the Washington Post. She's a Transportation Reporter. We're talking about a proposal for a high-speed Maglev train in this area. Luz, getting back to the possibility of a high-speed Maglev train between D.C. and Baltimore, it's my understanding it's still very much in the speculation phase, but what would a possible timeline to build the Maglev look like?
LAZORight. Yes, it's still something that even some people think it's unrealistic. It's very futuristic or people say, "Well, you know, we should start with a regular high-speed motor run trains." But actually, you know, like you said there's been conversations about this for years. But we are now at a point where we have been the closest to coming to construction. Currently the Federal Railroad Administration is conducting a federal review of this project, and it's expected to complete it this year. Basically the agency could essentially give the project the green light to proceed. Obviously as you have said there's questions about financing.
LAZOBut by the end of the year, the proponents of this project could have the blessing of the federal government for a construction option. And that could mean potentially starting construction sometime next year, and seven years of constructions, and operations by 2030. So within the decade it could be built.
NNAMDIA reality. Well, what -- how much would it cost to ride from here to Baltimore?
LAZORight. It will be expensive. The train -- let me see. You're talking about fares, right?
LAZOAnd how much it will cost. Okay. So the Federal Railroad Administration this last month issued a very, very long report on this project. And they had some insights on like what we can expect from it. So you could expect to pay an average fare for one trip, one way trip of $60. And it could vary between $27 and $80 per trip, but the average will be $60. That is if you compare it to what we have now that is a little bit on the pricey side, because you could ride the MARC Train from Baltimore to D.C. for $8. Obviously that takes you about an hour to get from city to city. Or you can take the Acela Train, the Amtrak's Acela Train for about $46 and that takes you from D.C. to Baltimore in 32 minutes. So if you're willing to pay $60 to get to Baltimore from the District in 15 minutes and if you can afford it, yeah, you can get there in 15 minutes if this is built.
NNAMDIOkay. Let's talk with Timothy in Cleveland, Ohio. Timothy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TIMOTHYVery good. Yes, my name is Timothy. I'm calling in from Cleveland, Ohio. I had the opportunity to reside for three and a half years in mainland China in the city of Shanghai. And during that period of time Shanghai has a Maglev from the city to the airport, which is about an hour car ride. And on top of the Maglev, China has the world's fastest --
NNAMDIWait, wait. Allow me to interrupt. You say it's about an hour car ride. How long does it take on the Maglev?
TIMOTHYMaglev took about maybe six minutes.
TIMOTHYAnd so on top of the Maglev, though, we have to have an understanding that when an American or anyone goes to China, they really gain the understanding of how this is a first world country when it comes to infrastructure. And American getting on the Amtrak after living in China can -- how to put it? Our Amtrak system is quite pitiful when we look at what its first world infrastructure is in mainland China. And so my hopes with the incoming Biden administration is that they can really build something that -- a bullet train system in the United States, because has essentially in China negated the need for domestic air travel. Thank you very much for having me on your show.
NNAMDIOne more quick question. How expensive was it to travel on the Maglev in China?
TIMOTHYMaglev, it was -- if my memory was correct, it was about $30. A $30 ride from the center of Shanghai to the airport.
TIMOTHYAnd on top of that, though, the bullet train system is -- it is quite cheap. Much cheaper than a domestic airline ticket would be.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for sharing that with us. Luz Lazo, how much would this project cost and how would it be funded? It's my understanding that this would be an initiative led by private investors.
LAZOIt is. This is -- there's a group of private investors that are pushing this project. And it won't be cheap. The estimates are that just building the first 40 miles between D.C. and Baltimore could be between $14 billion and $17 billion. It depends on what route they choose. But, you know, it's within that range $16 billion with a B to -- I mean, $14 billion to $17 billion. So that's quite expensive. And if you are thinking about from D.C. to New York it will be about $100 billion.
NNAMDIOkay. Here now is Lauren in Derwood, Maryland. Lauren, your turn.
LAURENHi, there. Thank you so much for taking my call. I love your program. So I am concerned about this project. I've been following it for a little while. And I have two major concerns that I'll raise today. One is that I think the way that the train is going to work is really going to disproportionately benefit wealthier people, you know, the ones that are doing that long haul travel on a regular basis while costing all of the taxpayers. So if feel in this time of equity and social justice it's really not appropriate to do this project, questionable as to its need as well.
LAURENAnd my second issue is that the current project proposal is placing a maintenance yard in really sensitive habitat. They're planning to place it in the Green Belt area, which is one of the most highly studied environmental areas in the country. It has a very long rich history of environmental research coming out of that parcel of land. Once you build this, you lose that forever. You'll never get that habitat back. You can't just plant trees and replace it.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Luz Lazo, in about the minute we have left and this will be going after the break for a few minutes too, but how do other jurisdictions feel about the Maglev? And how would the project leaders get permission to lay a rail line that will have to go through Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties?
LAZOYes, there is quite a bit of opposition in Prince George's County and Anne Arundel County. These are the towns that the Maglev will go through, but will not stop in there. As you know, this will only have three stops, one in the District, one at BWI Airport and the other one in Baltimore. So the towns in between have concerns that this will not have a direct benefit to them. But will essentially impact their neighborhoods. There are concerns about like the caller just mentioned impacts on public and private property park land, and also the cost of the service.
NNAMDIOkay. Okay. Got to take a short break. When we come back, Luz Lazo will stay with us for a few more minutes because a lot of people clearly want to talk about the proposed high-speed Maglev. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. In a little while, we'll be moving on to the plans for I-270 and the Beltway. But for the time being, for the next few minutes, we'll still be talking about the proposed high speed Maglev train with Luz Lazo of the Washington Post. Luz, it's my understanding that one of the biggest challenges is how to find room to build the railway line itself and terminal stations in downtown D.C. and Baltimore. This plan would be for station in Mount Vernon in the District. What are the challenges of building a station in such a densely built part of downtown D.C.?
LAZORight. Well, because this will be, you know, underground at least in this portion of the system I think the main concern will be the tunneling around the area that they have picked in Mount Vernon Square. And, you know, there will be tunneling all the way to Baltimore. So this will impact communities just like any other construction in the area.
NNAMDIOkay. Joining us now is Ian Rainey, Senior Vice-President of Northeast Maglev, which is behind this project. Ian Rainey, thank you for joining us.
IAN RAINEYThank you very much.
NNAMDIWell, we've heard about some of the difficulties. What would some of the benefits of this project be?
RAINEYYeah, that's a great question. And honestly the economic benefits of this project just really can't be overstated. I think one of your guests talked a little bit about the cost of the project. And, you know, with that expenditure in infrastructure, we're forecasting that the project is actually going to create about 160,000 jobs in the region. And that's from construction as well as operation. And another great benefit of the project is it will take about 15 million cars off the roads each year between D.C. and Baltimore. So that not only reduces emissions, but it also means a much faster and safer commute if you are using a car to get around.
NNAMDIWell, the cost of riding this high-speed train we're being made to understand might be out of reach for a presidents. What would you anticipate a ticket from here to Baltimore and a ticket from here to New York to cost?
RAINEYYeah. That's a great question too. You know, Luz hit on that and I appreciate her response. It is correct in this environmental impact statement that's been released. The average cost of a ticket is estimated at about $60, which is comparable with Amtrak Acela. But really the cost of a ticket is going to vary based on the purpose of travel. So if you're a business traveler and your buy your ticket at the last minute and you're traveling during rush hour, you might be paying that $60. If you buy your ticket ahead of time and you're going off that peak hour, it could be as low as $27. So there's going to be price points that I think accommodate all the travelers in the region.
NNAMDIOkay. Here is Jim in Greenbelt, Maryland. Jim, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JIMHey, Kojo. Yeah. Here in Greenbelt, one of the communities it's going to pass through, we're doing everything we can to fight it, because we know it's going to be an environmental disaster for us. And it's going to benefit a very small group of people. It's going to harm a very large group of people. And the worst of it is, for the cost of the project, if you took five percent of that money and gave it to Amtrak, we could have a decent train system in this country.
NNAMDIJim, why will it be an environmental disaster for you in Greenbelt?
JIMAll the tunneling, all the stuff that's going to come out of that, all the land around it that's going to be -- the green environment now that's going to be disrupted by that. It's -- to say nothing to just the noise and the disruption of the original building itself, etcetera.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you for sharing that, Jim. I think I want to get to Liz in Greenbelt, Maryland before I have Ian respond, because I think Liz has similar concerns, and is also in Greenbelt. Liz, your turn.
LIZYeah. Hi, I'm Liz. I've been living in Greenbelt for about 25 years. And Greenbelt has a unique, 254-acre forest preserve. This is land that the City of Greenbelt purchased with -- I believe it was with assistance with federal funds. And this land is home to a number of different species, including bald eagles. And one of the proposed routes for the Maglev would destroy approximately half of the forest preserve. Also, the Maglev is passed through the Beaver Creek watershed. There's a lot of marshland that's just north of Greenbelt, which is habitat for a number of species, including --
NNAMDII don't have a great deal of time, so allow me to have Ian Rainey respond. How do you do this, Ian Rainey, without significant environmental disruption?
RAINEYWell, you know, thanks, and I appreciate the caller's comments. We're really trying to work as cooperatively as we can with all the impacted communities. We are absolutely committed to building this project in a way that not only meets our transportation needs, but does it in a way that's environmentally sensitive. And we're committed to a very, very detailed environmental review process. That includes not just the federal government, but the state and local governments. I think there are about 50 or 60 agencies involved. So, the idea here is to leave no stone unturned. We've been undertaking this process for about three years, and it's very comprehensive. You know, one of the reasons that we're building three-quarters of this project in tunnel is to eliminate the types of the environmental concerns that the caller raised. So, we're taking, I think all the rights steps in going through the process to mitigate any environmental impacts.
NNAMDILuz Lazo, it's my understanding that there are some people who are excited about the idea of a 15-minute trip between Baltimore and D.C. We've heard a number of people who oppose it. But have you spoken with some people who really would look forward to it?
LAZOThere are people who support it, and I think Ian also mentioned that. But there are several business and labor groups that support the project because of some of the potential job and economic benefits from it.
NNAMDIOkay. And I'm afraid that's about all the time we have, at this point. Ian Rainey, thank you for joining us.
RAINEYThank you very much.
NNAMDIAnd Luz Lazo is a Washington Post transportation reporter. Luz, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIJoining us now is Jordan Pascale, WAMU's transportation reporter. Jordan Pascale, thank you for joining us.
JORDAN PASCALEThanks for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIJordan, we've seen, nearly a year now into the pandemic -- tens of thousands of people in school, kids at home doing their work remotely -- how has traffic changed in the region? And are we seeing any return of commuter traffic, yet?
PASCALEWell, if you remember, early in the pandemic, we really had traffic volumes tank. I mean, they were down 50 percent or more. That's kind of slowly risen back over time to almost about where we were. We're still down about 10 to 15 percent normal traffic volumes. But that 10 percent makes a really big difference when it comes to congestion, because once a road reaches capacity, each added little percent has an exponential impact on how bad traffic gets. And just to illustrate it one more way, pre-COVID, your evening rush hour speeds on the Beltway were about 40 miles per hour. Now it's about 60 miles per hour.
NNAMDIMaryland's Department of Transportation selected their proposal to expand the Capital Beltway and I-270 adding four high occupancy toll lanes, two in either direction. What are high occupancy toll lanes for those who may not be familiar with them -- also known as hot lanes -- and how do they work?
PASCALEYeah. Hot lanes mean that if you have three or more people in your vehicle, you can use these high-occupancy lanes for free. But if you're driving with less than three people, you can still use those lanes, you just have to pay to use them. And like in Northern Virginia, those tolls will increase based on how busy the toll lanes are. They want to keep those lanes moving at about 45 miles per hour. The whole goal is to get people to either carpool or take the transit to free up space and to provide like a consistent travel option for those that want to pay.
NNAMDIWell, Northern Virginia did something similar several years ago, along another heavy commuter route. How has it been working out there?
PASCALEWell, you know, Virginia says their morning commutes on the regular lanes in I-495, they take seven percent less time than it did before the express lane. So, they're saying it's improving travel for everything on 95 South. Evening commuters have, you know, 15 percent less travel time in the regular lanes. So, Virginia is even building more of these express lanes all the way to Fredericksburg. So, it's a tactic that officials really believe in, there.
NNAMDII'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about the plan to add four toll lanes to widen the Beltway on I-270. We're talking with Jordan Pascale, WAMU transportation reporter. Jordan, many complained that hot lanes are Lexus lanes. At times, the tolls in Northern Virginia have hit more than $30 a trip. What's the argument for this toll lanes, for the average commuter?
PASCALEYeah, I mean, these tolls can be really pricey, at times. The argument that I've always heard from Virginia officials is that, you know, even if you can't afford to pay the toll, those that are paying are getting out of the regular lanes and freeing up space for folks that can't. So, you know, all that may be true. I'm not sure how big a difference that really makes in the eyes of, you know, your regular commuter. Officials also say most people only use the lanes occasionally, like when they really need to get to, like, their kid's soccer game or, you know, get home for dinner, or something like that.
NNAMDIThis expansion of the Beltway on I-270 was originally proposed to encompass more of those highways. In this proposal, where would these lanes be, and why?
PASCALEYeah, so originally, I mean, the state still wants to build hot lanes all around 495 in Maryland, but this project is being broken down into phases. And so, this first phase is about 12 miles, and it starts at the Potomac River and the American Legion Bridge, and then goes kind of northeast up to the I-270 interchange and then north to Gaithersburg. And that's kind of where the biggest need is, at the moment.
NNAMDIIs the region's traffic that bad, Jordan, that hot lanes charging tolls are necessary?
PASCALE(laugh) I don't know how much you've been driving during this pandemic, Kojo, but, you know, it's not like we're used to. So, at the moment, no, traffic is not as bad as, you know, it was before. But it's really hard to predict what the future will look like.
PASCALEYou think about telework has changed the way that many in this region's economy work. The Greater Washington Partnership has been surveying, you know, large white-collar businesses in the region and found that many -- the majority of businesses expect most of their workforce to be able to telework at least one to two days after the pandemic. So, even that little bit of change can make a big difference, in terms of traffic. But if we go back to, you know, the way we were before the pandemic, yes, you know, 270 and 495 were historically some of the most congested parts of the region.
NNAMDIWell, a listener tweets: How can a $40 toll on I-66 pre-COVID be worth 15 percent of saved time? Now all the traffic has been moved to local streets. But then here is Jason in Arlington, Virginia. Jason, your turn.
JASONHi, Kojo. My name's Jason Stanford. I'm the president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance. I'm calling today because we've joined the 24 regional business and civic organizations in support of the Maryland Hot Lanes Project, because our region is expected to grow by more than 1 million people and jobs over the next two decades.
JASONI know you were just talking with Jordan about the possibility that, you know, will things return? I think it's important to keep the transportation project sort of long range, and it's important to keep that in mind. And these will accommodate that growth, incentivize more carpooling, increase transit reliability and ridership between Virginia and Maryland, save Maryland millions of dollars, shorten commutes in both three and four lanes and create a travel option that simply doesn't exist today. We've seen these lanes work in Virginia, and we agree with the region's transportation planning board that a regional express lane network should be the top transportation goal for our region.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Jason. I'm sure, Jordan, you've been hearing that sentiment, but you've probably also been hearing the one expressed by Barbara, in an email: The Maryland Department of Transportation said that adding private toll lanes will reduce traffic congestion, but their environmental report states that rush hour traffic on I-270 North will be worse. So, after putting up with years of delay from construction, drivers on I-270 will be rewarded with more congestion. How much of this kind of stuff have you been hearing, Jordan? (laugh)
PASCALEYeah, I mean, both point of views, actually. And, you know, the caller had a great point that, you know, this is a 50-year deal with, you know, these private partners that Maryland wants to do this project with. So, it is -- you know, in the short term, we're looking at, you know, the pandemic's been a year, but we are talking 50 years, and hopefully more growth in the region and all that sort of thing. But, yeah, and then the tweeter -- email also is correct, that is included in that report that could get longer and need years of construction to deal with, as well.
NNAMDIIn Virginia, Jordan, toll lanes were constructed through a PPP, a public private partnership, shifting the cost of construction to private companies. They would then collect the tolls to recoup and make a profit. How's it going to work in Maryland, the same?
PASCALEYeah, yeah, pretty similar. Maryland's looking at these private partners, but looking to include them a little bit earlier in the process. Three teams, including Transurban, which operates the Virginia express lanes, are bidding on the project to be the private partner. And that selection is supposed to be announced this month. So, we'll find out who wants in on this deal.
NNAMDIHere is Nate in Leesburg, Virginia. Nate, you're on the -- no, Nate isn't on the air yet. Nate is now on the air. Go ahead, please, Nate.
NATEHey, Kojo. We're all going to miss you, but I was wondering about motorcycles on the express lanes. Are they free? I saw a sign in Virginia off of Gallows, but I'm not sure about 95 and future 66 and then 495 in Maryland.
PASCALEOh, man, that's a good one, on the spot. (laugh) I think -- oh, gosh, I want to say, if my memory serves me, motorcycles can use them, but don't quote me on that. And I imagine it would probably be similar for Maryland, but I'd have to double check.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you. Here's Vern in Tacoma Park. Vern, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
VERNHello, and thank you, Kojo. Yes, we are going to miss you. My concern is, of course, that we are sort of a (unintelligible) automobile. That said, if we're going to build these lanes on our Beltway and up 270 and we're going to share profit with private corporations, what about the public? What about sharing some of that profit and putting it into Metro, put lanes of Metro like Route 56, right in the same right-of-way? Right above the right-of-way, going up 270, where we could use it, or going up to Laurel? Let's expand that transit, especially Metro, would save more funding by some of the profits and gasoline taxes.
NNAMDII guess, Jordan, this is really part of the essence of this debate between people who want to see expanded roads and people who want to see expanded mass transit.
PASCALEYeah. In Virginia, at least, some of that toll revenue does go into grants that the state dedicates toward, like, commuter buses and stuff like that that can use those express lanes. I imagine the deal is similar. I haven't looked that specifically into Maryland's proposal, but I imagine it would be similar, where they'll, you know, boost transit, you know, down 270.
PASCALEOr, you know, part of the proposal that Maryland's pitching is, like, expanding, you know, Park 'n Ride areas and bus shelter -- or, you know, places where you can get on the bus to create more base for spaces (sounds like). So, that is part of the proposal.
NNAMDIOkay. Here now is Fred in Greenbelt, Maryland. Fred, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
FREDOkay. Thank you, Kojo. Glad to be here, and thank you for all that you do, really. I live in Greenbelt, and I'm quite experienced with using mass transit and bicycling as alternative transportation, and motor vehicles, as well. I'm right near the Beltway. When we really comprehend what's going on in our environment, our world, like with COVID, we see many more people now going to alternative communications for their workplace. They're working at home more often.
FREDThe traffic is decreasing, not increasing. The problem with the Beltway has never been a full, 100-percent problem. There are bottlenecks. The bottlenecks need relief. When it comes to alternative transportation, walkability and bicycling should be emphasized now, because we see people turning to these so much more often, because they isolate us, but they give us our exercise.
FREDAnd then, in our communities, how often do we see places being built that do not connect to anything? But we could use something like -- are you familiar with Konterra, the large development up around -- next to Laurel? That gentleman put in roadways that connect to other major roadways, made thoroughfares for bicyclists, also, and made pedestrian features that really make it walkable and rideable.
FREDThese are the things that we need to focus on. Think of the reduction in cost. And when we look at mass transit, such as the Purple Line, I just had a flat tire the other day and got on a bus. A bus that I remember when I rode all the time at that time of the day would be packed. There were two people on the bus.
FREDMetro is sending out these huge buses that are having a minimal amount of riders -- very, very costly. We need to take a more analytical look at what is happening before we make such decisions. And I'd like to point out one more thing...
FRED...that Maglev will only accommodate the rich. Fifty dollars a pop going one direction is not going to accommodate the people, and it stops nowhere in between. It is a poor selection and a poor choice of a solution.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. He raises to issues, Jordan. One of them is that given how our work patterns have changed during the pandemic, we're not exactly sure how many people will be returning to work even after the pandemic is over, because a lot of us have discovered new ways of working. So, it's, I guess, difficult to predict what traffic is going to be like, isn't it?
PASCALEYeah, and, you know, that is the big question. I mean, even in our workplace, you know, traditionally, we'd be in a studio together. But I'm in my closet, and you're, you know, in your living room. So, you know, it's so hard to say what the future will look like. I know a lot of people have really enjoyed the work from home, and a lot of people really haven't. So, hard to say what people's preference will be, going forward.
NNAMDIJoining us now is Jeanne Braha, executive director of Rock Creek Conservancy. Jeanne Braha, thank you for joining us.
JEANNE BRAHAThanks for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIOh, and I should point out that we've learned that motorcycles can use hot lanes. They are considered HOVs. But, Jeanne Braha, can you tell us about Rock Creek Conservancy? What does the organization do?
BRAHAYeah, Rock Creek Conservancy is a small nonprofit for the Friends Group to Rock Creek Park, the national park in Washington, D.C. And our job, as well, is to protect the Rock Creek watershed.
NNAMDIOkay. What are your thoughts about the expansion of the Beltway and I-270?
BRAHAYeah, well, the proposed expansion of the Beltway would have a pretty significant impact, both on the stream valley parks in Rock Creek, as well as the quality of water in Rock Creek. And this is just one example around the project, as its entirety. As you drive along the Beltway, you know, when you pass the Mormon Temple, you can practically touch Rock Creek if you roll down your windows.
BRAHASo, you can imagine the ways in which expanding that by dozens of feet on either side with two additional lanes could have an impact on the critical habitat in the flood plains, as well as all of the pollution then that rolls off of the road surface, then, would go directly into the park, as well as downstream into the portion of Rock Creek in the District.
BRAHAAnd Kojo, I think it's really interesting the way we've been talking about a lot of the quality-of-life choices that these projects bring. And one of the drivers of quality of life in our region really is these amazing park systems that we have. To have 33 miles of connected park land from Georgetown to Lanesville is really a gift.
NNAMDIWhat have you been hearing from residents around the region?
BRAHAI have been hearing a lot of concern, particularly, as during the pandemic, we're seeing shifts in the way people use parks, as well as their cars. Montgomery parks has had a system we call Open Parkways, that allows people to recreate on Beach Drive in Montgomery County, right alongside the Beltway. So, I think there's an increased awareness of the value of that space and concerns about losing park land to expand highways.
NNAMDIOkay. Here now is Tony in Silver Spring, Maryland. Tony, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TONYYeah, thank you, Kojo, for all your years of informing us. I live in Silver Spring. My neighborhood's right next to the Beltway and will be quite damaged by widening it. My question to the speakers are: What do you think of more transit options like light rail or bus rapid transit, instead of widening the highways?
NNAMDIWell, before I ask Jeanne Braha about that, Jordan Pascale, what is Governor Hogan's attitude toward that?
PASCALEYou know, he's always been a big proponent of this expansion. He's voted for it over and over, and that's been his big push. You know, I don't -- that's been his priority, I guess, is, you know, I imagine he supports, you know, some sort of transit in addition, but, you know, his priority has been expanding this highway.
NNAMDIBecause, Jeanne Braha, you know these routes are very congested -- at least pre-pandemic, and drivers are sitting in traffic for long periods. So, if that were to return, isn't there an argument for keeping people moving, rather than on the roads emitting exhaust?
BRAHAThere is definitely an argument that we need to make sure that we can get people where they want to and need to go more efficiently, certainly than pre-pandemic. I think that during the pandemic, we've had a real opportunity to think about different ways of imagining our future and whether that's whether we commute to work versus staying, you know, going into an office regularly, or just how we use these really critical public spaces. I mentioned the Open Parkways initiative.
BRAHAI also think this is an enormous project. The entirety of the project represents about 80 miles of highway. And it's not necessarily appropriate to have the same solution across the entire project, depending on communities' needs, as well as the environmental sensitivities around the different project areas.
NNAMDIHere now is Michael in Washington, D.C. Michael, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MICHAELHi, Kojo. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how residents of Maryland, D.C. and Virginia could get involved in this project. It sounds like a lot of partnerships are being decided on, plannings happening. Are there existing public hearing or organizations that individuals can reach out to to have more say in this process?
NNAMDIJordan Pascale, is this a done deal?
PASCALEWell, it's not a done deal, yet. I mean, there's still a lot of votes to come. The public comment period on the latest environmental study has closed. I believe there's more opportunities to participate in the future, and especially on the larger, full project. You know, the Space One is, you know, in the works, a little bit. But the best suggestion I have, if you just Google 495 270, the first thing that comes up is the state's project website. And there's a link in there that says "Participate," and that'll kind of give you some of the public hearings and all the different ways you can kind of weigh in.
NNAMDIAnd thank you for your call, Michael, and good luck to you. David emails: Montgomery County working class communities and communities of color in Central Montgomery County who are providing essential services in D.C. and lower Montgomery County, will not be able to use the toll lanes. Way too expensive, and will lose opportunities for expansion of transit expansion. Jeanne Braha, have you heard about any alternatives to this expansion project?
BRAHAWell, certainly, one that we're keeping an eye on is the Purple Line, which is slowly coming towards us, which would certainly add additional cross county and connect between Montgomery County and Prince George's County. I'm certainly hearing a lot about bus rapid transit. And then, of course, we have MARC lines and Metro lines that could expand capacity.
NNAMDIWell, speaking of the Purple Line, we got a tweet from Paul, who says: Why should we trust the state with this considering the mess they have done with the other public private public partnerships? Remember the Purple Line? To which, Jeanne Braha, you say what?
BRAHAWe are very excited to see more mass transit come in with the Purple Line and certainly have some concerns about how it's rolled out. I will admit, the environmental and social challenges are a bigger expertise of mine than the economics of the P3 system.
NNAMDIWhat has your organization been doing to raise the concerns that you've mentioned?
BRAHAYeah, well, we've certainly heard from lots of our constituents concerns about this project. So, we've been trying to share information -- I invite everybody to check out our website, rockcreekconservancy.org -- with our partners at the National Parks Conservation Association and the Sierra Club, as well as a number of other organizations throughout the region. We submitted comments on the draft environmental impact statement, as well as some standalone comments focusing on Rock Creek parks.
BRAHAWe are also continuing to reach out the Montgomery County's elected officials. Both our state delegation, our congressmembers and our county officials have been really great advocates and voices on behalf of the concerns of Montgomery County citizens. So, we're trying to keep them apprised of all of the concerns that we're hearing, as well as opportunities that we see.
NNAMDIWell, if the project does move forward, what's your plan B, so to speak?
BRAHA(laugh) Well, you know, I certainly hope that before the project moves forward, if it were to, that there is significantly more careful analysis of the impact on people, on historic resources and, most importantly, park lands. You know, part of the environmental review process is a really careful assessment of the ways that you can avoid environmental impacts, and then looking at opportunities to minimize them, and then worst case scenario, ways to mitigate them.
BRAHAAnd one of the conservancy's big concerns about this project is that the state is taking a really regional look at that mitigation. So, it's possible that in places like Rock Creek -- but also for other parts of the project -- the environmental mitigation, the making good on that impact will happen far offsite, most likely in places with lower land costs. So, we wouldn't necessarily see the benefits where the environment is hurting. And particularly in places with sensitive water quality, as well as, you know, the really important habitat connectivity we see in these stream valley parks, that really doesn't offer a benefit to our environment.
NNAMDIHere is Jason in Rockville, Maryland. Jason, your turn.
JASONHi. I'm calling to actually comment and offer my support, as well as the support of millions of residents in the D.C. area who want this built. I've been following this project for quite some time, and I've also been a vocal supporter of actually building a second (unintelligible) across, as well. And I've been listening to all these counterarguments, and they don't seem to make any sense.
JASONFirst of all, these naysayers, their argument is based on, well, you know, it's an impact to the environment. Well, there's going to be traffic whether we build this or not. A hundred-thousand cars are traveling, whether there's 10 lanes or one lane. And wouldn't we want traffic moving, so it gets air pollution out?
JASONAnd, additionally, you know, these people aren't opposed to this solution. They're opposed to any solution. You know, they're...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Well, they're not opposed to expanding mass transit, so they're not opposed to any solution at all. But here -- can you -- Jason, can you...
JASON(unintelligible) true. They're opposed to the Purple Line. They're opposed to any -- most of the most vocal opponents of 270 and 495 are also the most vocal opponents to the Purple Line.
JASONI find it -- I'm sorry, go ahead.
NNAMDI...see if you can respond to this email, we got from Matt. Matt asks: Could you ask what happens if ridership projections turn out to be too high? Who bears the burden, the private contractors, the state or some mix of both? Would taxpayers be on the hook if the project doesn't bring in the expected amount of revenue? To which you would say what, Jason?
JASONI'd say that comment is rather ironic. It's not comical. You know, these people are the same people who want to tax this, tax that with billions of dollars on social justice do-goodery, but when something comes along that actually can benefit the overwhelming majority of Montgomery County and Maryland, (unintelligible). All of a sudden, we can't spend any money.
NNAMDIOkay. Well, we've heard from you in Montgomery County. Let's talk with somebody in Prince George's County. Here is Pam, in Greenbelt. Pam, your turn.
PAMHi, Kojo. Thank you. One thing that's been missing in this debate -- and I have to say in response to the earlier speaker, that we cannot build our way out of congestion. We can build more and more roads, and they will be filled up. And this will not be a free project. It won't be paid for privately. In the documentation that the proponents put out, they already admitted that they might have -- our taxpayers may be on the hook for tens of millions of dollars.
PAMBut the big problem for me, as a citizen of Prince George's County, is that for both this expansion and for the Maglev, is that our county has to give up so much, and we see no benefit. Seven national parks will be impacted, our water and air will be polluted. We have to give up our forest preserves. Yet for this Beltway expansion, that'll mean that there will be very limited numbers of entrance and exit ramps, and none of them will be in our county.
NNAMDIJordan, in the 30 seconds or so we have left, what are next steps? When would construction begin, and how long would it take?
PASCALEYeah, not a done deal, by any means. There's still a vote by the Board of Public Works. The federal government still needs to weigh in, and their decision is expected in the fall. And then construction could begin after that. But, you know, we're probably looking at decades with the whole 495. It's a big project, $11 billion. So, a long time, a lot of money.
NNAMDIJordan Pascale is WAMU's transportation reporter, whom I have not seen in almost a year. Missing you, Jordan.
PASCALEWe miss you, too, and congrats on the semi-retirement.
NNAMDIThank you. Jeanne Braha, thank you very much for joining us, also.
BRAHAThanks so much, Kojo, and we'll have to get you out in Rock Creek when you have more time after retirement.
NNAMDII'm in Rock Creek all the time on my bicycle. Today's show on the future of transportation in our region was produced by Richard Cunningham. Coming up tomorrow, it's the first in our Kojo Connect Series on race and social justice. In a year of pandemic and protests, better education in black history is more essential than ever, but what students learn depends largely on where they live. Two local educators share how they teach black history and why it matters. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening, and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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