Map credit: Map tiles by Stamen Design, under CC BY 3.0. Data by OpenStreetMap, under ODbL.

“Traffic Relief Plan,” Maryland

Status: Study and review
Originally reported cost: $9 Billion

Original story from Highway Boondoggles 4, 2018:

In February 2018, Maryland had a transit emergency. That month, Baltimore’s entire Metro SubwayLink system was shut down for a month after inspections revealed that the subway was becoming dangerous and needed emergency repairs. The closure immediately threw into disarray the commutes of 34,000 daily riders and shined a light on years of neglect of the system. Meanwhile, in the Washington, D.C., area, much of which is in Maryland, the Metrorail system has seen reliability suffer and experienced several high-profile safety incidents following years of deferred maintenance.

Maryland recently agreed to cover its share of a $500 million annual funding plan for Metro with Virginia and the District of Columbia, a first step in restoring the system to health. But the investment in Metro pales in comparison to a massive highway expansion project that would likely put more Marylanders on the road.

The proposed projects would be some of the biggest and most expensive highway expansion projects in the country. In total, the proposed “Traffic Relief Plan” would cost $9 billion: $7.6 billion to add four new lanes to I-495 and I-270, and $1.4 billion to add four lanes to MD-295, the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.

mdtraffic1.png

Maryland’s “Traffic Relief Plan” would entail adding new lanes along more than 100 miles of highway.

The three highways planned for expansion all cover important transportation routes in the Baltimore-D.C. area: I-495 encircles Washington, D.C., I-270 connects D.C. with Frederick, a major suburb northwest of the city, and MD-295 connects D.C. with Baltimore. Each route suffers from hours of congestion each weekday and is a source of pain for area commuters.

However, expanding Maryland’s already substantial highway capacity would likely bring minimal relief for those commuters. I-270 and I-495 are already eight lanes across, with miles of additional auxiliary lanes; for much of its route, MD-295 runs parallel to Interstate 95, which is also eight lanes across. As described above (“Highway Expansion Doesn’t Solve Congestion,” page XXX), highway expansions rarely reduce congestion because they result in more overall driving. Meanwhile, the plan would have large costs for the state of Maryland – for neighborhoods along the route, for Maryland taxpayers, and for Maryland’s transportation future.

Highway expansions along the proposed routes would likely require damaging existing neighborhoods. The Traffic Relief Plan Request for Information notes that along I-495, “[r]esidential and commercial development is located close to the right-of-way line,” and indicates that the project will require right-of-way property acquisitions. One response from an infrastructure investment company notes that “[m]ost of the corridor is built along dense residential, commercial and office areas.” I-270 and MD-295 also travel through stretches of dense development in the areas closest to Frederick, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. Widening MD-295, which is a historic parkway currently maintained by the National Park Service, would also likely require diminishing that road’s scenic value.

mdtraffic2.png

I-270, MD-95, and I-495 (shown above) travel through dense residential and commercial areas, and their widening will likely require relocating homes and businesses. Image: ©2018 Google

The project also would cost Marylanders money – for new tolls, but also likely from state funds. The plan envisions that I-495 and I-270 would be built through a public-private partnership (PPP), under which a private company or companies would build the highways and then collect tolls for access to new express lanes, in a contract lasting a to-be-determined number of years. The MD-295 lane additions would be toll roads built by the Maryland Transportation Authority (MDTA).

Governor Larry Hogan has promoted the potential PPPs as a good deal for taxpayers, saying “[i]t won’t cost us tax dollars.” Yet this is misleading. The state’s own documents confirm that federal funds and loans will be sought for the project. And similar projects around the country have typically not been able to raise enough toll revenue to cover their costs. For example, tolls have not come close to covering the construction costs of additional lanes built for I-95 north of Baltimore.

One response to the project’s Request for Information notes that “toll revenues may not be sufficient to cover the entire costs of the Project,” and suggests that “MDOT might consider a ‘hybrid’ toll revenue and availability payment approach, or may choose to supplement toll revenue by contributing some amount of public subsidy as milestone or completion payments during/at the end of construction.” (For more on how PPP projects can affect state finances, see page X.)

Governor Hogan has also demonstrated his willingness to reduce tolls, regardless of the cost to the state, as when he reduced tolls at roads and bridges across Maryland in 2016. Future politicians may do the same, and the result may be the need for state payments to support the new highways.

Any new debt created by the project would add to Maryland’s already quickly-growing highway debt. At the end of 2015, Maryland owed $5.2 billion in state highway bonds, 5 times more than it did at the end of 2000, not adjusted for inflation. And in 2014, the state spent $492 million servicing highway debt, three times as much as it did in 2000.

New costs to Marylanders for building highways will make it more difficult to pay for other pressing transportation needs, including:

  • Fixing and improving the Baltimore Metro.
  • Funding the MARC commuter rail, which has had to rely on stopgap funding measures to remain in service.
  • Building more and better urban transit. This includes the proposed Red Line light rail extension, which would have connected Baltimore neighborhoods, improving transportation options in the city while helping Maryland residents live in the city and avoiding sprawl. In 2015, Governor Hogan cancelled the extension.
  • Repairing roads and bridges. More than half of Maryland roads are in poor or mediocre condition, and 27 percent of bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.