Mass transit activists push alternative to I-270 proposal
Plan estimated to save $1B
A coalition of environmentalists and mass transit advocates is pushing a three-faceted alternative to the state's proposal to add toll lanes to a 30-mile stretch of Interstate 270 — which, costing as much as $4 billion, would be Maryland's most expensive transportation endeavor ever.
After a vigorous e-mail and letter writing campaign this summer, the advocates are focusing on the Montgomery County Council, which is set Sept. 15 to choose which of seven versions of the interstate expansion to endorse and if the proposed Corridor Cities Transitway from Shady Grove to near Clarksburg should be a light rail or a rapid bus line.
Some alternatives do not push the highway beyond its current edges, while others could destroy hundreds of homes and businesses, most of them in Gaithersburg. If nothing is done, the State Highway Administration projects today's 230,800 maximum daily trips will in a quarter century see another 30,000 drivers.
Gov. Martin O'Malley is expected in the fall to announce his choices for the interstate and the CCT.
County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) and the County Planning Board came out in support of differing options this summer. And when the County Council was set to choose last month, the vote was delayed until after the summer recess.
At the July 21 session, several council members were adamant that the council must support the effort to alleviate traffic on the interstate. Councilman George Leventhal reminded his colleagues that residents beyond the reach of metro lines rely on vehicles.
"People are going to drive and we should make it easy for them. That's our job. We're here to make life easy for our constituents, not to make them miserable," said Leventhal (D-At Large) of Takoma Park. "Road-building remains a critical function of state and local government and I have an obligation to those folks who live north of Shady Grove Road."
Environmentalists and transit advocates are frustrated that elected officials are so willing to support a $4 billion highway project while its companion mass transit proposal would see less than $800 million investment. The Sierra Club, the Coalition for Smarter Growth, the Audubon Naturalist Society of Maryland and 1000 Friends of Maryland have used the County Council's summer recess to piece together a package of transit-oriented alternatives they want the state to consider in lieu of the highway project — and which they say would cost $1 billion less.
Three-quarters of a billion dollars would turn Route 355 from White Flint to Gaithersburg into "a boulevard like in Paris" with a light rail in the median, wide sidewalks and on-street parking, said Ben Ross, president of the Action Committee for Transit. Extending the Red Line to Germantown could carry as many as people as three lanes of I-270, Ross said, and MARC has long wanted to expand its commuter service to full-day service in both directions.
"We have to stop doing the same thing over and over again — widening highways — because it hasn't worked," Ross said. "It's a question of political will."
While Councilman Michael J. Knapp appreciates the effort to breathe new life into the discussion, he said "there are also just fundamental realities that you have to come back to."
Extending the Red Line has been dismissed because of the difficulty of going underground through Gaithersburg. And CSX, which owns the rails, has balked at efforts to expand MARC that would limit running freight, he said.
"We have to have an element of reality in the conversation," said Knapp (D-Dist. 2) of Germantown. "They are conversations to have, but it's not as if people haven't talked about expanding MARC service before."