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.
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.