Category Archives: transportation

Busting Three Metro Myths

The six graphs – one for each Maryland branch of the Metro – in today’s post reveal the ridership figures for all Maryland Metro stops from 2005 through 2016. They’re not encouraging either for the health of the system or cherished myths around it.

Transit Always Heralds Urbanism

“If you build it, they will come.” Usually not. In Maryland, only three stops have become high traffic urban nodes: Bethesda, Silver Spring and Friendship Heights – the latter is shared with the District. The other 24 stops have not witnessed remotely this level of impressive urban development or Metro ridership. Outside the urban three, the highest ridership occurs mainly at end-of-the-line commuter stops, such as Shady Grove, Greenbelt and New Carrolton.

Transit advocates and developers are both very attached to this myth. The former because they believe fervently in transit. Developers like it because they are permitted to build far more when transit is built, which allows them to make a lot more money even if nobody ever rides it. Proximity to transit also raises the value of their property at somebody else’s expense.

The uncomfortable truth is that no nodes similar to Bethesda or Silver Spring – or Ballston or Rosslyn – have emerged in Prince George’s County. Leaving aside the terminus stops, ridership is not very high and certainly not growing. And the terminus stops have seen more precipitous declines than in Montgomery – 34% at New Carrollton, 21% at Greenbelt, and 20% at Branch Avenue.

Thriving Urbanism Heralds More Transit Riders

Not necessarily. Bethesda, Friendship Heights and Silver Spring have continued to grow yet ridership has declined. In 2016, all three served many fewer riders than at their peak – 15% in Bethesda, 17% in Silver Spring, and 20% in Friendship Heights.

Transit is a positive for these areas but it’s only one factor among many. It’s not that smart growth or new urbanism is totally off base. The focus on transit may lead to overestimation of its importance to successful development. Density and the mixture of residential and commercial looks more crucial to their continued success. It’s why places like the Kentlands thrive even though they’re nowhere near Metro.

There is little sign that less intense development around Metro stations other than the big three has increased ridership either. Throughout the Maryland portion of the system, ridership has tended to stay flat or decline. Remember that this has occurred despite population increases in both Prince George’s and Montgomery.

Declining Ridership is Temporary

Two major excuses are given for Metro’s declining ridership: the financial crisis and Metro’s “temporary” maintenance backlog. At this point, the former explains little as the recession is over and the population is now higher, so Metro should have more riders. The latter is belied by the similar decline in Metro’s bus ridership. Moreover, SafeTrack will not bring the system back to tip-top condition but simply prevent its complete collapse, as General Manager Paul Wiedefeld has been at pains to point out.

The wheel of technological change is driving changes in transportation patterns fast. Increasing numbers of jobs can be done via telecommuting. Competition from services like Uber and Lyft are remaking the taxi industry and attracting many new riders. Every price increase in Metro or its parking lots only makes them more competitive – and the price of both is likely to head up.

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M-83 Supporters Get a Win

By Adam Pagnucco.

Back on November 3, David Lublin wrote that the County Council had placed the planned Upcounty highway M-83 “in the freezer.”  We agree with that take with one addition: if and when M-83 comes out of that freezer, it will be ready to serve.  That’s because instead of killing the road, the resolution passed by the County Council has preserved it for a future county government to build.

To understand what has happened, one has to consider the goals and challenges of road supporters and opponents.  The supporters want to fund its construction.  That’s tough because the road will cost roughly half a billion dollars and the county is reducing its annual issues of general obligation bonds to trim future debt service.  Opponents want to remove the road from the county’s master plans.  They believed they had a chance to do that since six Council Members said they opposed M-83 during the 2014 elections.  But that has not happened.

The council’s resolution, passed on Halloween, did not implement the agendas of either side.  Its action language is worth reading word for word.

The County Council for Montgomery County, Maryland approves the following resolution:

  1. The Council supports expanded capacity on I-270, the Corridor Cities Transitway, Bus Rapid Transit on or near MD 355, and improvements on MD 355. These improvements will provide significant, immediate relief for Upcounty residents. These improvements align with our economic development strategies, providing the broadest and most diverse benefits, and minimize impervious surface, stormwater runoff, carbon emissions, and other environmental impacts.

  2. The Council directs the Montgomery County Planning Board not to assume additional road capacity from the northern extension of Midcounty Highway when calculating the land use – transportation balance in future master plans, including but not limited to the upcoming Gaithersburg East Master Plan and the Germantown Plan for Town Sector Zone. This step ensures that any new development allowed under these plans does not rely on the northern extension of Midcounty Highway, while retaining the right-of-way for this extension in these plans.

Road supporters did not like the omission of M-83 from the list of projects supported by the council.  They should have no argument with the idea of not including M-83’s capacity in calculating infrastructure needs for future development.  That could help prevent the road from filling up immediately after it’s built (if it’s built).  But the last sentence referring to “retaining the right-of-way for this extension” is a big win for supporters of M-83.

Why does this matter?  A casual perusal of land ownership maps from the State Department of Assessments and Taxation shows massive county land holdings in the vicinity of M-83’s preferred alternative.  Identifying every one of the dozens of parcels owned by the county and county-affiliated entities there would be a time-consuming research project.

A sample of county-owned land for M-83 near Watkins Mill Road and Great Seneca Creek.

Instead, we asked the county Department of Transportation’s project manager for M-83 how much of the right-of-way for the road’s preferred alternative was currently owned by the county and state.  We received this response.

Dear Mr. Pagnucco:

Thank you for your interest in the Midcounty Corridor Study (M-83) project.  Per our preliminary assessment, approximately 60% ROW for M-83 has been dedicated or reserved and another 24% is in parklands owned by the County’s Parks.

Should you have any questions, please contact me.

Best regards,

Gwo-Ruey (Greg) Hwang, P.E.

Capital Projects Manager

That’s right, folks – the county and Park and Planning together control 84% of the right-of-way for M-83 right now.

Why does this matter?  Let’s remember the history of the Intercounty Connector.  The highway had been in master plans for decades.  As of 1997, the county and state owned more than half the right-of-way for the ICC.  The following year, Governor Parris Glendening announced he was killing the project and later told the state government to sell part of its right-of-way.  But the state did not sell off all its right-of-way and in fact purchased some of it after Glendening’s announcement.  Continued state ownership of the ICC’s right-of-way made it much easier for Glendening’s successor, Governor Bob Ehrlich, to reverse his decision and begin construction.

So it may be with M-83.  The county’s holdings of right-of-way for the project may be even greater as a percentage of its acreage than the state’s holdings of the ICC were a decade before its construction.  The resolution by the council explicitly calls for “retaining the right-of-way” in the master plans, suggesting that the county’s holdings will not be sold.  And the road has not been removed from any master plans, a key goal of opponents.

M-83 supporters should have hope.  M-83 opponents should beware.  Both sides have a lot of work to do in next year’s elections.

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Marc Elrich on Hogan’s Road Plan

The following post by Councilmember Marc Elrich (D-At Large) continues Seventh State’s series on reactions to Gov. Larry Hogan’s road proposal by candidates for county executive. It appeared previously on Maryland Matters.

Recently, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) announced his $9 billion proposal to add toll lanes to I-270, I-495 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. While a number of people have initially enthusiastically supported his proposal, I think it bears a lot more scrutiny.

The best thing about it is that the governor shows a willingness to invest in infrastructure, though how much is state money and how much is user tolls is not known.

One of the problems is that he’s proposing a sledge hammer for a project that needs a scalpel. The scope of the proposed solutions for I-270 and I-495 are overly grandiose and unnecessary. On I-270 a more sensible approach would be two reversible lanes from the county line to the Beltway, which is what the County Council proposed several years ago. There isn’t room for four lanes, and it’s an unnecessary expense, because the congestion on I-270 is directional – meaning from north to south in the morning and the reverse in the evening. (It is also known as peak direction.)

Neither side of the road needs these lanes outside of the peak direction at rush hour. Reversible lanes are the most efficient use of money and space. These lanes should be for express bus and high-occupancy vehicles only.

On I-495 there are serious space constraints, particularly between New Hampshire Avenue and 355. Not only are there many houses close and a major hospital almost immediately adjacent to the highway, but there are also legal constraints regarding encroachments on Rock Creek. Multiple lanes would be an environmental disaster for Rock Creek.

Additionally, large sections of the Montgomery County portion would be astoundingly expensive – remember the overpass bridges don’t have enough room for four lanes of new highway. Instead, a single reversible lane might fit within the existing width of the highway. Engineering data would be needed to confirm this, but there seem to be at least some places wide enough to add a lane now using the inside shoulder service lane. It may be possible to add two lanes past 355 going to Virginia – reversible lanes should be used there as well. Why build what you don’t need?

Gov. Hogan is missing two bigger picture problems: transit in general and Metro in particular. If money is available for highway expansion, then money is available for Metro. Metro cannot fail – in fact, it needs to improve and absorb more riders from the roads. A Metro fail would devolve into a widespread road disaster because most people would use local roads, not the highways, to get around.

Because no highway goes into Washington, D.C., a Metro failure adds thousands of cars on Georgia, Connecticut and Wisconsin avenues. Those additional cars would flood the commute to the city as well as make a mess for those commuters trying to access the job centers along 355.

The second overarching problem is that the governor is not looking at the big picture. The Beltway and I-270 have congestion problems, but what happens when exiting these roads is equally problematic. Even if, for example, cars on the Beltway arrive quickly to Georgia Avenue at rush hour, they would face a long queue simply to exit the Beltway and then a slow slog on Georgia. In other words, the local road network is already overwhelmed and no amount of highway lanes can change that situation. So even if cars spend less time on 495 getting to an exit and then they are stuck on the exit ramp or on the road, where are the savings?

The realities of the commutes necessitate a commitment to local transit. Local transit is the only way to clear enough space off the roads so that people can get to their destinations in a reasonable amount of time.

Because building new local road lanes won’t work, increasing transit usage on the local road network is central to any solution.

The whole point of the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) network that I proposed was to increase mobility on local roads and take a load off the already overwhelmed road network. (I first proposed the BRT network in 2008 and it is slowly developing.) BRT built right and desirable to use will provide actual congestion relief – just imagine what the roads would function like without a Metro and if those passengers returned to their cars.

Any plan that doesn’t integrate the local roads and the highways is simply not going to work. The governor should look more carefully at what is needed, rather than just declaring the addition of four lanes to the highway at great public expense, whether four lanes are needed or not. A more strategic assessment would free up capital that could go toward a more comprehensive, successful solution.

And, there are two other things to consider. A public private partnership, or P3, may be the most expensive way to fund a project and that is going to reverberate in tolls. Essentially, people with money to spend get a better highway experience and those without the means, remain in a poor experience. If money is the ticket to the new lanes, then you’re disincentivizing car pools, van pools and buses.

We need to get cars off the road, rather than finding extravagant ways to keep them on the road. This is a huge public expenditure with no accompanying analysis of what the state won’t be able to fund as a result – I’m worried about education, transit funding, and other critical infrastructure. Since none of us believes that there’s an infinite well of money, an expenditure like this on three roads may well mean that other critical projects don’t get done.

Another unknown is the impact of increased telecommuting. If we could get 15-20 percent of the workforce telecommuting each work day, we’d be dealing with a far less expensive problem to solve and probably have a much better travel environment.

I know the governor’s announcement makes a great news splash, and it certainly allows Gov. Hogan to say “I’m committed,” but it’s not very well thought out beyond that. I’d like to take the actual state dollars he’s offering and then have a real conversation about a comprehensive solution to the problem that actually makes better connections where trips start and where they end. And transit must be the central part of that conversation.

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Bill Frick on Hogan’s Road Plan

The following post by Del. Bill Frick (D-16) continues Seventh State’s series on reactions to Gov. Larry Hogan’s road proposal by candidates for county executive:

Traffic congestion is possibly the biggest challenge to Montgomery County’s quality of life and its economy, so I am pleased that Governor Hogan is talking about taking bold steps to deal with this problem.  That said, what little we know of Hogan’s strategy raises many questions that must be answered.

Will we really be able to accomplish all he has outlined with private dollars?< Will there be any work to remedy clogged arterial streets and the bottleneck at the American Legion Bridge?

Would an all-toll solution provide enough capacity that it benefits non-toll drivers?   

Will Hogan address Metro’s problems with seriousness and collaboration with DC, VA and the Federal Government?

Will Hogan include – and fund- the Corridor Cities Transitway as part of the I-270 strategy?

These are merely some of the policy questions.  This doesn’t even scratch the surface of the practical and logistical issues that the proposal presents.

I hope that Governor Hogan is committed to real solutions to a real big problem.  Press conferences are not enough.  We need leaders to devote serious work, provide adequate resources, and bring stakeholders together across party and jurisdictional lines to get this county moving again.

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George Leventhal on Hogan’s Road Plan

I had the chance to speak with George Leventhal about Gov. Hogan’s road proposal. He explained that the proposal was a complete surprise to local officials because just days earlier Hogan’s Department of Transportation had presented their proposal to spend $100 million to improve mobility on I-270.

As for Hogan’s new proposal, created without any consultation with Montgomery officials, George said “It isn’t possible to be for it or against it because we don’t really know what it is.” In particular, he he emphasized the lack of any information on whether the proposal would include the American Legion Bridge.

The following is by Councilmember George Leventhal (D-At Large):

We need a lot more information about Governor Hogan’s announcement yesterday, but I am glad to see him paying attention to Montgomery County’s traffic congestion problems. I have been calling for expanded capacity on I-270 and the American Legion Bridge for a long time, and until yesterday, the governor had offered only a good, but insufficient, proposal for I-270, to improve technology and signalization, totaling $100 million. It will be interesting to learn how his new proposal is to be integrated with that earlier proposal.

The County Council has called for two additional reversible lanes on I-270, and it will be worth discussing with the state whether that would be sufficient, and obviate the need for four new lanes. Also, I would like to see a dedicated transitway as part of any plan for I-270 and the American Legion Bridge.

When it comes to I-495 east of the I-270 spur, I don’t understand how lanes could be added without significant adverse consequences to homes, businesses, watersheds, and Rock Creek, Sligo Creek and Northwest Branch Parks.

The governor’s attention to our transportation problems is welcome, but it would have been nice to see closer consultation with local officials before the announcement was made. Fortunately, it’s just a broad outline at this point and I hope that he and his team will now work with local government to figure out the details.

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Roger Berliner on Hogan’s Road Plan

Today, I am pleased to start a series presenting the views of candidates for the Democratic nomination for county executive on Gov. Larry Hogan’s plans to widen I-270, I-495 and the BW Parkway. The following is by Councilmember Roger Berliner (D-1):

I am pleased that the Governor has come in off the sidelines and onto the playing field to address one of our county’s and our region’s greatest challenge:  congestion.  Congestion robs our residents of their time and diminishes our quality of life and our competitiveness.  We need to take strong action.

But we also need to take action that is focused, efficient, and smart, action that comes after consultation with the communities most affected.  I deeply regret that the Governor did not engage in any dialogue with our county on his plan.  It would have been a better plan if he had.  Bigger is not always better.  And that is particularly true when the costs are to be paid for by drivers and when you don’t want to create even more demand by promoting more sprawl.

I have four main issues with the Governor’s plan:

  1. Instead of 4 lanes on 270, our Council has advocated for years that the state should add two reversible lanes.  270 is almost entirely peak driven.  We need AM and PM rush hour capacity.  Reversible lanes provide precisely that.
  2. While the Governor has proposed adding capacity “to” the American Legion Bridge, he has not said if or how he would “fix” the American Legion Bridge.  Adding capacity to the bridge without fixing it would make one of the worst chokepoints in the region that much worse.  Fixing the American Legion Bridge has to be one of the highest priorities of any plan to address congestion, and any fix should accommodate rapid transit between Montgomery County & Fairfax, a long term goal of ours.
  3. The Governor’s plan calls for 4 new lanes on the Beltway. Most of us who use the Beltway every day scratch our heads and wonder where he thinks we can get 4 lanes without taking scores of homes, destroying neighborhoods, taking hospitals and park land.  Getting any additional capacity will be a challenge, let alone 4 lanes.
  4. The Governor’s plan does not recognize the value of transit. Our top transit priority along the 270 corridor is the CCT.  We had to beg to get just enough dollars in the state budget to keep it alive.  Transit proximity is what future looking companies like Amazon are looking for.  Not highways.  And on highways, our Council has urged High Occupancy Toll Lanes, lanes that give priority to car pools, vans, and buses.  Express lanes, as the Governor has proposed, does not do that.   Highways are a 20th century solution.  Transit is the 21st century choice.     The Governor needs to double down on his commitment to transit.

Bottom line:  the Governor has started a critically important conversation.  But it better be just the start, not the end of it.

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Hogan’s Political Coup

Gov. Larry Hogan’s plan to add four new toll lanes to I-270, I-495, and the BW Parkway is a political coup. Here’s why:

Most Still Drive

it doesn’t take a poll to know that concrete proposals to expand capacity on the Washington suburban region’s major highways will be very popular. Though most of the discussion among Democrats has centered on public transit, the great majority of commuters in the Maryland suburbs of DC take a car to work.

According to the 2010 American Community Survey, among those who live and work in the same county, 71% drive alone or in a carpool. Just 11% ride public transit and the remainder get there some other way (e.g. walking, biking).

However, as evidenced by daily traffic snafus, many have to travel to another county or state to get to work—over 40% in Montgomery and Frederick, and over 60% in Prince George’s and Charles. Among those who travel to another county but stay within Maryland, 93% drove alone or as part of a carpool.

At 69%, the share is lower for those who work in another state with the bulk of public transit riders going to DC. Nevertheless, even commuters to DC still tend to drive as opposed to taking public transit—56%-43% in Montgomery, 64%-34% in Prince George’s, 68%-31% in Frederick, and 76%-24% in Charles.

Divides Democrats

Republican strategists must be enjoying immensely the bind that Hogan’s plan places Democrats. While it will be highly popular among most voters, key core Democratic constituencies will line up to oppose the plan.

Environmentalists will oppose Hogan’s plan for the same reason they intensely fought the Intercounty Connector. Road construction destroys natural habitats and contributes to global warming by feeding our addiction to the fossil fuels needed to power most cars. Montgomery County’s Sierra Club has already announced opposition.

This dovetails nicely will smart growthers’ philosophical opposition due to their firm convictions that roads do nothing to alleviate traffic and that transit-oriented development produces more livable communities. The Coalition for Smarter Growth is already making these arguments.

Democratic politicians will be spending a lot of time either placating voters or members of these core constituencies, who are disproportionately active in politics.

The Bill Comes Later

In the Purple Line public-private partnership, we are building the line with the federal money and Maryland will pay its share later. More specifically, late enough that Larry Hogan will be gone from public office before the major costs hit the state. Convenient.

The proposal for a PPP here that will cost the voters “nothing” sounds right out of the same playbook. By the time voters relearn that nothing in this life is free, Larry Hogan will have long moved out of the Governor’s Mansion.

Opposition Much Harder to Explain

Hogan can take a victory lap claiming that he is building roads that will reduce traffic while Democrats did nothing. In contrast, Democratic opponents will need to explain ideas like induced traffic and their concerns regarding hidden costs.

Good luck with that.

Nuance and complexity are harder to explain than simple solutions. Even thoughtful critiques understandable to non-traffic and non-budget experts–and I have seen several since Hogan made his proposal–take much longer than a soundbite.

Strengthens Claims on Washington Suburbs

Hogan’s support for the Purple Line pleased transit advocates. His new plan will do the same among the even greater number of voters who want new roads. Even though the roads remain a gauzy idea, it is now harder to label the Governor– the king of small, poll-tested ideas–as having done nothing for the region.

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When You’re In a Deep Hole

By Gaithersburg City Council Member Neil Harris.

In a recent meeting with the capital improvements team at MCPS, I suggested that it would take $1 billion in extra capital funding to provide enough classrooms and to fix dilapidated schools. The staff responded that the number was more like $2 billion or more. Ouch.

My guess was based on the basic cost for classroom space of $40K per student. So, an elementary school for 750 kids would cost $30 million. And we have 9,000 kids in portables ($360 million worth of classrooms) and we’re adding 2,500 new students each year ($100 million). I guessed at double that for renovations, but apparently that number is way worse than my rough guess.

In transportation, the situation is even worse. Not only is our system the most congested in the country, but in 25 years the congestion is projected to be 72% worse! In the past 15 years, we’ve added several hundred thousand new residents to the mid- and up-county, and the population will grow by 20%. We’re not keeping up.

The National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board (TPB) made projections based on the regional long-range plan, which includes all the projects proposed and expected to be funded. The TPB recently looked at the 500 projects proposed but not expected to be funded, and building all of them “only” makes congestion 28% worse. I repeat: building every project proposed still makes congestion 28% worse!

One problem for the TPB is that the projects on their list are proposed by local jurisdictions: the states, counties, and cities, and are most often focused on local needs. There is no central authority over regionally significant ideas that will serve to improve transportation for everyone.

Another challenge is that there is such a huge focus on new transit that it crowds out roads. If you build a new Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) on a Metro Station and 60% of the new residents use Metro, then there are still 40% of the new residents in cars. One mode is not enough, and the current plans look like they are out of balance, with the vast majority of trips by auto in 25 years but most funding going to transit and not highways. To be clear: in 25 years with $100 billion spent on transit in our region, we increase ridership by 2% for work trips, with a huge increase in auto trips and little improvement in our road network.

The TPB bravely took it upon ourselves to develop a list of 10 “potentially game changing” projects, programs, and policies to study, to learn if there are ways to actually reduce congestion instead of surrendering to it. This has been a controversial process thanks to inclusion of a new northern Potomac crossing, but the TPB has recognized that desperate times require desperate measures.

So, where would the money come from to fix these problems, assuming we find good answers and the political will to address them?

For transportation, Northern Virginia has taken the lead. The Northern Virginia Transportation Authority collects a small surcharge on some taxes to create $330 million in new funding to reduce congestion. Under this new program, the state and the local jurisdictions are not allowed to reduce transportation funding, so the money goes directly to new programs.

For schools as well as transportation, Adam Pagnucco suggested that Montgomery County’s annual revenue grows by about $140 million each year due to increased income and property tax revenue. How about dedicating all this growth to infrastructure for the next few years, instead of operations? In five years or so, we could be all caught up.

These aren’t the only ways to get out of the hole. We could build schools like the Monarch Global Academy in Laurel, which cost one-third to one-half what MCPS spends on each school. That would stretch our dollars. We could look at the cost-effectiveness of transportation projects already in the pipeline and refocus on ones that make more of a difference.

I hope with the big election year in Montgomery County next year, we can direct the candidates to solve these big challenges as their top priority. We need to understand what projects will actually help and then find ways to pay for them.

Whatever we do, we know one thing – when you are in a hole, first stop digging.

Neil Harris is Vice President of the Gaithersburg City Council and a voting member of the Transportation Planning Board and TPB’s Long Range Plan Task Force.

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The Zombie Bridge Returns

By Adam Pagnucco.

The long-discussed second bridge across the Potomac may never truly be dead.  Dubbed “the Zombie Bridge” by Council President Roger Berliner, the creature will continually claw from the grave as long as its living minions keep trying to shovel it out.  And this time, the zombie’s targets will include county candidates for office.

First, a bit of background.  Discussions of a second bridge date back to at least the time of the American Legion Bridge’s construction in 1962 as part of a possible Outer Beltway.  Montgomery County and the state even included the second bridge in their master plans until it was removed in 1974.  Nevertheless, the bridge has been examined several times.  Twenty years ago, the bridge and its associated roadway was known as “the Techway” and was the subject of a 2000 federal study requested by Virginia Congressman Frank Wolf.  Within months, Wolf asked that the study be canceled after constituents fearful of property seizures mobilized against it.  But the bridge was awakened yet again by a 2004 study of the American Legion Bridge which showed some demand among travelers in points west.

Anyone have any brains in Maryland?

The bridge’s supporters are clustered in two organizations.   The first is the 2030 Group, an organization of major developers and construction firms with property in both Maryland and Virginia.  Members of the 2030 Group have significant overlap with the board of the Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance, which also supports the bridge.  Advocates for the bridge cite a 2015 poll by OpinionWorks of 800 adults in the Washington region that shows substantial support.  According to the poll (shown below), 59% of respondents favor the bridge, including 39% who strongly favor it, and 11% oppose it.  In Montgomery County, 68% favor (52% strongly) and 12% oppose.  The poll does not mention the bridge’s cost (a figure that may not exist in any reliable form yet) or its location.

Opponents, including smart growth groups and environmentalists, point out that the project is not just about the bridge itself but also its connection to the county’s road network.  The bridge, proposed to extend north from Route 28 in Virginia, is not supposed to terminate at River Road but is intended to connect northeast to I-370 and the Intercounty Connector.  How much is that likely to cost?  (The ICC cost $2.4 billion.)  How much property will have to be seized for its route?  (Much of the right of way for the ICC was already in state or county hands as that road had been planned for decades.)  Another factor for consideration is that the State of Maryland owns the entire Potomac River between the District and West Virginia.  Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe told Bethesda Magazine, “I don’t fund bridges that aren’t in our state. It doesn’t touch our border. That’s your simple answer… I take responsibility for bridges in Virginia.”  That leaves Maryland and MoCo to figure out how to pay for any new bridge.

Connect the red stars.  How would you plan a route from a new Potomac bridge to I-370?

Despite the unanimous opposition of the Montgomery County Council and no apparent support from Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board just voted to study a new Potomac bridge.  That has effectively resuscitated the project, which now shambles from the grave into the 2018 elections.  Because it is now under study, it is certain that we have not heard the last word on the bridge until the June primaries.  The deep-pocketed real estate and construction interests who support the bridge may fund an advocacy campaign to sway both candidates and voters on its behalf.  Meanwhile, environmental and smart growth groups will include questions about the bridge on every questionnaire they send to candidates and will likely consider it a litmus test issue.  All of this will squeeze candidates between major progressive organizations and traffic-hostile voters looking for alternatives to I-270 and the Beltway.

MoCo politicians may try to run, try to hide and cry out for help as they flee from the monster, but it will continue to stalk them no matter how hard they try to escape.  The Zombie Bridge has returned.

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Hogan’s Transportation Scam

By Adam Pagnucco.

A looming crisis threatens to devastate Maryland’s transportation program.  As much as one-third of the state’s transportation project spending could be at risk.  Key projects will be delayed, perhaps some indefinitely.  Is this because of the transportation transparency law that Governor Larry Hogan wants repealed?

No, not at all.  The real problem is something much more mundane, something Hogan does not want to talk about: a gaping budget hole.

The Transportation Trust Fund (TTF) is a segregated fund used to finance Maryland’s transportation programs.  Its largest sources of revenue are motor fuel taxes, titling taxes, registration fees and other Motor Vehicle Administration fees.  It also receives a substantial amount of federal funding.  Its proceeds are used to finance the Maryland Department of Transportation’s (MDOT) operating expenses as well as MDOT’s debt service and six-year capital program.  This means that funding for transportation capital projects is subject to variations in TTF revenue as well as changes in MDOT’s operating costs and debt service.

Page 43 of the Fiscal Briefing reviewed by the General Assembly last week shows a substantial deterioration in the TTF over the last year.  The briefing states:

The six-year State capital program in the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) fiscal 2017 through 2022 Transportation Trust Fund (TTF) forecast is $1.5 billion lower than in the prior year’s six-year program. Lower estimated revenue attainment, primarily motor vehicle fuel tax revenue, accounts for about half the decrease with higher projections for debt service and departmental operating expense spending accounting for the other half of the reduction in the capital program.

The briefing continues:

MDOT did not use the five-year average annual increase in operating expenses to calculate out-year operating expenses as directed in the 2016 Joint Chairmen’s Report. As a result, MDOT’s forecast likely understates operating expenses by $585 million over the forecast period, or just under 5%, and overstates the amount available for the capital program by $1.7 billion.

Translation: $1.5 billion in forecasted transportation spending, or 15% of the state’s six-year total, has disappeared in one year.  And the administration’s underestimating of MDOT’s operating expenses could cause the capital program to drop another $1.7 billion.

That’s right, folks: one-third of all funding for state transportation projects could be evaporating.

Now let’s be fair.  Governor Hogan does not control revenues for transportation, which are chiefly determined by the state of the economy.  Their substantial drop suggests that the economy is not doing as well as Hogan says it is.  The economy could get even worse if Republicans in Washington repeal the Affordable Care Act – something that would cost Maryland tens of thousands of jobs – and push through substantial cuts to federal agencies.  The Governor is also only in partial control of MDOT’s operating expenses, which include substantial amounts of materials and supplies purchased from private vendors.  Those expenses are squeezing money for transportation along with the revenue shortfalls.

But one thing the Governor does control is his own behavior.  A reasonable Governor acting in good faith would go to the General Assembly and say, “Look folks.  We have a problem here.  Let’s get together and figure out how to deal with it.”  That would be in line with the Governor’s regular calls for bipartisan cooperation.

Instead, the Governor has launched a Holy War against the General Assembly’s transportation transparency law, which merely requires him to justify the projects he chooses to fund.  He falsely claims that the law would require him to cancel projects when it does no such thing and even announced funding for one project a week after he said it would be killed.  Instead of working with members of the General Assembly to remedy a real budget problem that threatens transportation projects, he assaults them on Facebook about a fake problem that he has made up.

One of several Facebook posts the Governor is using to target state legislators.

It’s a scam, folks.  This Governor does not want to deal with an impending transportation crisis that is happening on his watch.  Instead, he is trying everything in his power to shift blame to Democrats in the state legislature.

Don’t fall for it.

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