Author: Christopher Richter

New Crosswalks Unveiled in White Flint

County leaders and residents in White Flint celebrated a milestone in helping to ensure the safety of pedestrians Wednesday evening.

That’s because new crosswalks, equipped with automatic walk signals, were unveiled during a ribbon cutting ceremony with Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett, County Council President Roger Berliner, and the county’s Department of Transportation Director, Al Roshdieh, on the intersection of Nicholson Lane and Executive Boulevard.

These new crosswalks are a part of a larger project, the White Flint Sector Plan, which includes improving the safety of pedestrians and cyclists.

“This is a big deal,”  Mark Fitzpatrick, co-owner of Choice Real Estate Group, said. “Me and my family […] we eat here, we do everything in this area so the more you see it changing and improve, it lets us know that they are actually being proactive and care.”

It was the persistence of a grassroots collection of people from Pike Park Pedestrians, with the help of staff from Friends of White Flint and the Coalition of Smarter Growth, that promoted Montgomery County leaders and MCDOT to respond.

Wednesday’s ribbon cutting was just one of dozens of projects MCDOT has planned for the White Flint area.

“This is the first of tangible and physical improvements that are being constructed that we’ve helped work for,” Jay Corbalis, development associate for Federal Realty, said. “It’s more symbolic of the on the ground, safe improvements, we’re making.”

Here’s the worst traffic ‘hot spot’ in the U.S., according to a new study

Congratulations, Washington-area drivers. You can now claim the worst traffic “hot spot” in the country — a stretch of Interstate 95 in Northern Virginia that averages a whopping 23 traffic jams a day, according to a new study released Wednesday.

Motorists heading south on I-95 between the Fairfax County Parkway and Exit 133 in Fredericksburg lose an average 33 minutes in backups that leave brake lights stretching an average 6.5 miles, according to the report by INRIX, a Kirkland, Wash.-based traffic data firm.

If congestion doesn’t improve over the next decade, the researchers said, that stretch of I-95 will cost local motorists $2.3 billion in wasted time, lost fuel and additional carbon emissions.

Nationwide, continued traffic congestion could cost drivers $2.2 trillion over the next decade, the study found.

Bob Pishue, an INRIX senior economist, said researchers put a dollar figure on backups studied in more than 100,000 “hot spot” road segments in March and April to help public officials target improvements. Being able to prioritize transportation spending, he said, is particularly important since the Trump administration has proposed $1 trillion in infrastructure investments.

Quantifying the costs of traffic congestion, Pishue said, will help government officials weigh the costs and benefits of improving roads or expanding transit in different areas.

Researchers didn’t say how traffic should be alleviated.

“The investments should go into areas that would get the most bang for the buck,” Pishue said. “If those funds go to where drivers are feeling the most pain, it will go a long way in gaining public support” for additional infrastructure spending.

Overall, the Washington region ranked third in the United States, behind Los Angeles and New York City, for the 10-year costs of traffic congestion. Los Angeles motorists face a potential $91 billion, while New York City drivers could lose $64 billion to backups.

Atlanta came in fourth with $29 billion in potential costs over the next decade, and Dallas came in fifth with $28 billion.

INRIX, which collects data from sensors on vehicles and motorists’ cellphones, usually ranks cities’ traffic misery by focusing on motorists, such as how much time they spend in backups.

This time, Pishue said, researchers examined traffic in different road segments.

The Washington area had two other traffic “hot spots” among the 25 worst, the study found. Northbound I-95 from an area south of Fredericksburg to Exit 143 (Garrisonville Road), also in Northern Virginia, came in seventh with 936 traffic jams over the two-month study.

In Maryland, the eastern part of the Capital Beltway between Kenilworth Avenue (Route 201) and just east of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge in Prince George’s County ranked ninth worst with nearly 700 backups.

John B. Townsend II, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said he wasn’t surprised to hear I-95 in Northern Virginia had earned such a dubious distinction.

The highway’s 29 miles of express toll lanes, which opened in 2014, have given motorists willing to pay a faster, more reliable option and freed up more space in the regular lanes, he said.

They’ve also caused more backups where the toll lanes end and vehicles have to merge into the regular travel lanes.

“In one way they’re a godsend because they’ve lived up to their promise of creating faster commute times on I-95,” Townsend said. “But we’re seeing these slowdowns in the regular lanes. You just get these backups up and down the line . . . At the end of the day, you still save time.”

Kelly Hannon, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Transportation, said the state will spend $800 million over the next five years to improve I-95 in the Fredericksburg area.

She said traffic is particularly congested there because local motorists who use I-95 as a Main Street for errands mix with regional commuters, tractor-trailers and long-distance travelers.

“Any incident can cause delays very quickly,” Hannon said. “It’s just a very fragile system whenever anything unexpected happens.”

The state has started extending the express toll lanes two miles to the south and plans to build another 10 miles of them south to Route 17 (Exit 133), Hannon said.

It’s also planning to build three new southbound lanes in the median to separate local and through traffic between Exit 133 and Exit 3 (Route 3).

Stewart Schwartz of the Coalition For Smarter Growth said adding more lanes will only attract more traffic. He said I-95’s continued congestion, even in areas with express toll lanes, shows additional lanes only makes it easier for more people to drive.

He noted Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) recently proposed adding express toll lanes on the Beltway, Interstate 270 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.

Northern Virginia’s roads won’t see relief, Schwartz said, until the region’s growth plans insist on more affordable housing closer to jobs and transit options.

“Without that,” he said, “you’re going to keep the pressure on that highway.”

Photo courtesy of Lina Davidson and the Washington Post. Click here to view the original story.

Hogan Highway Plan Could Turn Region Into Toll Lane Capital

From the front seat of a car, the future of transportation in the Washington region looks like hundreds of miles of toll lanes.

With Maryland Governor Larry Hogan’s new plan to expand the Beltway, I-270 and Baltimore-Washington Parkway each by four lanes, his state is poised to join Virginia in seeking private developers to build HOT (high-occupancy toll) lanes to relieve congestion on major highways.

With an estimated cost of $9 billion, the project would be the largest public-private partnership for a highway project in the country, raising an array of questions concerning the state’s transportation priorities, the efficacy of tolling to unclog traffic, the public’s willingness to pay, and – in the case of BW Parkway (MD 295) – whether it is appropriate to transfer federal land to a for-profit toll road endeavor.

Under the HOT lane system, the price of the toll rises and falls along with traffic demand; as more cars flow into the HOT lanes, the electronically-charged, dynamically-priced toll increases in order to maintain speeds of 55 mph. Motorists have the option to stay in the free lanes, but risk getting stuck in traffic if they are unwilling or cannot afford to pay the toll.

The sheer scale of the governor’s proposal, unveiled at a news conference in Gaithersburg on Thursday, makes clear Hogan does not believe piecemeal projects will work. And he is not afraid to promote bold ideas, given his administration’s ongoing study of a high-speed maglev train between Baltimore and Washington — a project that could cost at least $10 billion.

Tolling the entire length of the Capital Beltway in Maryland would require 44 miles of construction, leaving only about 8 miles of I-495 without electronic toll gantries, all in Virginia: from the Wilson Bridge to the I-95 interchange. Virginia, in a public-private partnership with Australia-based Transurban, opened HOT lanes on 14 miles of the Beltway in late 2012, from the American Legion Bridge south to I-95.

If the maximum concept is realized, the 44 miles of the Beltway, 34 miles of I-270, and 32 miles of BW Parkway would give Maryland 110 miles of HOT lanes situated across the river from the 85 miles of express toll lanes Virginia plans to have by 2022, with the opening of the I-66 outside the beltway project.

Such massive investments in highway expansions are leaving transit and smart growth advocates dismayed that regional leaders could be largely giving up on their preferred way to reduce congestion. By changing land use patterns by putting more jobs and housing near high-capacity transit hubs, these advocates argue, commuters would not have to drive in the first place. They say Hogan’s idea will only encourage more drive-alone commuters – the very cause of congestion – even though HOT lanes typically allow carpoolers and buses free access.

In response to these criticisms, Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn argues that new train lines and bus routes are not sufficient to tackle the region’s traffic problems.

“This isn’t a question of transit versus roads. We have to have both,” Rahn said. “The world is awash in capital that is looking for projects exactly like these.”

Do HOT lanes work?

Transportation experts say express toll lanes are effective in providing users predictable travel times and congestion-free travel. It is unclear over the long term to what extent HOT lanes will relieve congestion in the free lanes running parallel to them.

Virginia officials say traffic flow has improved on the regular lanes on I-495 since the HOT lanes there opened five years ago. But if you accept the rule of “induced demand” – built it and more cars will come – then any relief could be temporary.

“Whether it is going to relieve congestion on the un-tolled lanes is a question,” said Rob Puentes, the head of the Eno Center for Transportation, a Washington think tank. “It is probably not going to be able to do that because of this rule of induced demand. Folks will still be attracted to the roads and will fill it up with traffic.”

In the HOT lanes, Puentes says, “the tolls themselves will be used to moderate the congestion and keep it relatively congestion-free.”

Dan Malouff, the editor of the pro-transit blog BeyondDC, said Hogan’s plan raises questions that simply cannot be answered at this point.

“Will there be buses on these highways, and if so where will they go and how will they be paid for? Where will the toll profits go? Will they go to the state? Will they go to the private contractor? Will they go to transit? Who knows?” said Malouff, who said Hogan’s desire to obtain the BW Parkway from the U.S. Department of the Interior is potentially troubling.

“There is the question of whether the National Park Service and Trump administration should be giving away national park land to a state or a private contractor in order to run a highway,” he said.

Solution ignores the real problem

Others are not waiting to see the plan unfold before condemning it. Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, said that adding lanes to the Beltway will not solve the root cause of traffic congestion: the imbalance of opportunities between the east and west sides of the region.

“Most of the worst traffic is westbound to Montgomery County and Northern Virginia in the morning, and then eastbound on the inner loop back to Prince George’s in the evening. That’s a land use problem, a jobs and housing balance problem, not at its core a transportation problem.”

Schwartz’s group lobbies local and state governments to change zoning laws to allow more housing and jobs to be located near Metrorail and other transit stations.

“Unfortunately the multi-national toll companies have really hijacked the transportation planning process and have undue influence to the exclusion of other alternatives that would better protect neighborhoods and the environment,” he said.

To transit advocates, there is not enough asphalt in the world that can be paved to end traffic jams. To Maryland’s top transportation official, Pete Rahn, the state is capable of fixing highways at the same time as it commits to spending billions on transit in the form of the Purple Line light rail project in the suburbs.

“There have been very few major improvements to highway systems on the Maryland side of the capital region,” Rahn said. “It’s been neglected too long.”

If all goes as planned, Rahn said construction could begin by 2019. That depends on whether the state can reach a deal with a private developer to design, finance, build, operate, and maintain the express toll lanes, and, in the case of MD 295, whether Maryland can obtain the parkway from the federal government.

Photos courtesy of Jose Luis Magana / AP and MDOT. Click here to view the original story.

State Roundup, September 22, 2017

MAJOR HIGHWAY PROJECTS: Robert McCartney, Faiz Siddiqui and Ovetta Wiggins of the Post are reporting that Gov. Larry Hogan (R) on Thursday proposed a $9 billion plan to widen three of the state’s most congested highways — the Capital Beltway, Interstate 270 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway — in what he said would include the largest public-private partnership for highways in North America.

OPPOSITION TO PROJECTS: Smart growth and transit advocates, environmental groups and some Democrats expressed their disapproval, calling the projects short-sighted, bad for the environment and sure to spur sprawl and overdevelopment. Business groups were elated, writes Josh Kurtz in Maryland Matters.

COUNTY EXECS WANT NOISE SUIT AGAINST BWI: Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh and Howard County Executive Alan Kittleman want the state to sue the Federal Aviation Administration over what residents near BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport describe as lower, louder airplanes. In separate letters, both executives asked Attorney General Brian Frosh to sue the administration on behalf of Marylanders, reports Rachael Pacella in the Annapolis Capital.

REDMER VS. McDONOUGH: The race for Baltimore County executive heats up on the Republican side Saturday as Maryland Insurance Commission and former delegate Al Redmer announces his campaign at a sold-out event hosted by Gov. Larry Hogan. Del. Pat McDonough, who’s been running for some time, formally announces that morning at a Dundalk diner. McDonough has been sniping at Redmer for months and Thursday released a Redmer Report, a one-page summary of all his attack points against Redmer.

CHALLENGE TO STATE GUN LAW: A Maryland man has mounted a U.S. Supreme Court challenge to the state’s prohibition on convicted felons possessing firearms, saying individuals must be allowed to have a judge decide on a case-by-case basis whether the ban violates that person’s constitutional right to keep and bear arms., Steve Lash of the Daily Record reports.

REGIONAL ECONOMIC WEAKNESSES: A new “super regional” group of chief executives of large employers from Richmond to Baltimore has been studying the Washington area’s economy and has identified weaknesses it says are stifling growth. The region possesses valuable assets, including a highly educated workforce and the seat of the federal government, but its incomes and productivity aren’t keeping pace with other major metropolitan areas, reports Robert McCartney in the Post. The Greater Washington Partnership also said in a report released Thursday that too many talented workers are leaving the area because of greater opportunity elsewhere.

RETURN OF PHOENIX SCHOOLS? A fire led to the eventual end of Phoenix — a groundbreaking Maryland public school program for children with addiction that closed in 2012 — but the state could see institutions like it rise again from the ashes. Recent spikes in the Maryland heroin and opioid epidemic have triggered calls for substantial changes in education systems statewide, and a state work group is weighing the return of recovery schools after a Sept. 7 meeting, Capital News Service’s Georgia Slater reports.

TOWN TO PAY PURPLE LINE GROUP: The Town of Chevy Chase will not appeal a judge’s order to pay $92,000 to the Purple Line advocacy group Action Committee for Transit and member Ben Ross for the cost of their attorneys’ fees in a public information case, Andrew Metcalf of Bethesda Beat reports. Mayor Mary Flynn said Tuesday the town will pay the fees rather than appeal the order. The Town Council plans to approve a supplemental appropriation in October to do so.

CANDIDATE PHUKAN RECOVERING: Anjali Reed Phukan, Republican candidate for comptroller, is recovering from emergency surgery at Atlantic General Hospital in Berlin, to remove her gallbladder. “Maybe almost died,” Phukan (FU-kan) reported on her Facebook page early Tuesday morning. Later that day she posted “I survived.” “Next time let’s just have a little less narcotics and a little more vegetables,” said the gaming agency auditor who is a recovering addict and a vegetarian. Here’s our original article on Anjali Phukan.

SINCLAIR SEEKS SEN. HERSHEY’s SEAT: Heather Lynette Sinclair, a 32-year-old Kent County Democrat, has filed to run for the state Senate seat in District 36, challenging incumbent state Senate Minority Whip Steve Hershey (R-Upper Shore) for the seat that represents southern Cecil County, as well as Kent, Queen Anne’s and Caroline counties, Brad Kroner writes in the Cecil Whig.

BALTIMORE’s SEWAGE LEAK PLAN SCRUTINIZED: It appears that a federal judge will have to settle a serious disagreement over whether the city of Baltimore has a credible new plan for curtailing the frequent sewage overflows and chronic leaks that have long made the harbor and urban waters unsafe for recreation, Timothy Wheeler of the Bay Journal reports in MarylandReporter. A local environmental group, Blue Water Baltimore, has asked a federal judge to reject the plan, unless it is further strengthened.

A SOLDIER’s TALE: Blaine Taylor, in a commentary in MarylandReporter, questions MPT’s Vietnam Voices and whether it really represents those of Marylanders who served.

Photo courtesy of video from Governor Hogan’s Facebook page. Click here to view the original story.

Hogan proposes $9B plan to add new lanes to Beltway, 270 and BW Parkway

WASHINGTON — Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan is proposing an ambitious $9 billion project to ease traffic congestion that includes adding four new lanes to the Maryland side of the Capital Beltway, Interstate 270 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.

The plans also calls for the addition of new express toll lanes on all three of the routes.

The additional lanes on the Beltway would run from the American Legion Bridge to the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, according to the proposal Hogan laid out Thursday morning. The four additional lanes on I-270 would run from the Capital Beltway to Frederick. The additional lanes on I-295 would run from Baltimore City to D.C.

“These three massive, unprecedented projects to widen I-495, I-270, and Md. 295 will be absolutely transformative, and they will help Maryland citizens go about their daily lives in a more efficient and safer manner,” Hogan said in a statement.

The governor’s announcement amounts to the first step in what is expected to be a lengthy and potentially contested process.
It’s unclear what aspects of the project, if any, would require signoff from any parts of the Democratic-led legislature.Hogan said the project will be managed as a public-private partnership and that private developers would be tasked with designing, building, operating and maintaining the new lanes. The project is still in the request-for-information phase.

Amelia Chasse, a Hogan spokeswoman, said in an email to WTOP that the Maryland General Assembly has the opportunity to review and comment upon the plan.

Building new express toll lanes on the Baltimore Washington Parkway requires the U.S. Interior Department to transfer the parkway land, which the federal government owns, to the Maryland Transportation Authority. Hogan said he recently met with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to “personally” kick-start the process.

Zinke and Hogan recently sat down for a “wide-ranging conversation,” said Alex Hinson, deputy press secretary at the Interior Department told WTOP in an email. “No decisions related
to issues involving the Baltimore-Washington Parkway were made during that meeting,” Hinson said.

In a statement, Democratic Rep. John Delaney called Hogan’s announcement “good news” and called for bipartisan cooperation on the broad outlines of the plan

“This is day one of what should be a considered process and we’ve got to carefully analyze the plan and the costs, but I am encouraged that we’re finally moving forward and I’m supportive of the state thinking about these kind of big solutions to big problems,” Delaney said.

Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen told WTOP in an email he supports steps to reduce traffic congestion, “but the project must be structured in a way that protects consumers from excessive tolls.”

In a statement released Thursday, the Coalition for Smarter Growth, a group that advocates for public transportation, blasted Hogan’s proposal as a “highways-first” approach” to transportation issues.

“Smart growth, demand management, and transit investments are the only fiscally-responsible long-term approach, but the big multi-national toll road construction consortia have been hijacking our transportation planning process promoting massive toll lane projects,” said Stewart Schwartz, the group’s executive director, in a statesmen.

The coalition said the governor should pause the multibillion-dollar plans and consider a broader approach that includes completing the first phase of the Purple Line and a dedicated express bus lane that ties into the I-270 HOV lanes at the American Legion Bridge bottleneck.

WTOP’s Kate Ryan contributed to this report. 

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to remove that State Democratic Sen. Rich Madaleno said Gov. Hogan has to get approval for the plan from two budget committees before moving forward. The committees can comment and review rather than approve. Madaleno is running for Maryland governor.

Photo courtesy of WTOP/Kate Ryan. Click here to view the original story.

Hogan plans to widen I-270, I-495 and BW Parkway

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan on Thursday announced $9 billion in projects to add lanes to Interstate 270, the Capital Beltway and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway to ease congestion in the traffic-choked suburbs of the nation’s capital — a plan that includes toll lanes.

Hogan said the plan to add four lanes to all three roads “will substantially and dramatically improve our state highway system and traffic throughout the region,” while benefiting millions of Marylanders.

“Daily backups on the Capital Beltway, I-270 and Baltimore-Washington Parkway have made the Baltimore-Washington corridor one of the most congested regions in the nation,” the Republican governor said at a news conference in Gaithersburg. “This problem has been marring the quality of life of Maryland citizens for decades. Today, we are finally going to do something about it.”

The I-495 beltway around Washington will be widened by four lanes for its entire length in the state, and I-270 will be widened from 495 to Frederick.

Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth in Washington, said his organization is urging the governor to pause and look at reasonable alternatives, such as more public transportation. He cited concerns about environmental impacts, and he said the new capacity will encourage people who found other ways to commute besides driving to return to the roads and make them congested again.

“If you build it, they will come,” Schwartz said.

The state will be seeking private developers to design, build, finance, operate and maintain the new lanes for those two projects in a public-private partnership, which is also known as a P3.

“These ambitious and unprecedented traffic-relief plans will collectively be the largest P3 highway project in North America,” Hogan said.

Once completed, the plan calls for new express toll lanes, in addition to the existing lanes, on the three roads.

Hogan said has met with U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to begin the process of transferring the Baltimore-Washington Parkway to the Maryland Transportation Authority. The governor said he has directed state officials to finalize details and move forward with transfer negotiations.

The statewide cost of congestion based on auto delay, truck delay and wasted fuel and emissions was estimated at $2 billion in 2015, the governor’s office said. That was an increase of 22 percent from the $1.7 billion estimated cost of congestion in 2013, the governor’s office said. More than 98 percent of the weekday congestion cost was incurred in the Baltimore-Washington region.

Last month, U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao signed a funding agreement with Hogan to build a 16-mile (25-kilometer) light-rail project in the traffic-choked suburbs of Washington. The project, named the Purple Line, is also a public-private partnership. The cost to design, build and operate the line is estimated at about $5.6 billion.

F.C. Council Grants Final OK To Novel 10 Cottage Cluster

By a 5-2 vote, the Falls Church City Council gave final approval for a special zoning exception to permit development of a cluster of 10 senior age-restricted 1,500-square foot bungalow-style cottages on Railroad Avenue in the City. The unique project, the brainchild of F.C.-based developer Bob Young, won approval despite fierce opposition from some of the neighbors to the location, which is tucked adjacent the W&OD trail on the fringes of the City boundary.

The final approval completed a year-long process that began with the Council OK’ing a change to permit construction of such cottage clusters as a matter of policy. That was followed by the specific Railroad Avenue plan that took months to gain Monday’s final OK. In the end, it was in the spirit of the original allowance for cottage clusters as an alternative housing model that won the day on the Council, with the crucial approvals coming from Council members Letty Hardi and Karen Oliver for just that reason. They both cited their support for alternative housing models as grounds for their approval of the Railroad Avenue plan, saying that moderately priced alternatives to the City’s dominant focus on large single family homes, and in this case, restricted for senior use, constituted their grounds for support.

Once those two Council members went on record in support Monday night, the die was cast, and the remaining expected “yes” votes from Phil Duncan, Vice Mayor Marybeth Connelly and Dan Sze only sealed the outcome. Mayor David Tarter and Councilman David Snyder voted “no” on grounds argued by those neighbors to the site who were opposed, that it was cramped into too small an area and that parking and emergency access issues were not adequately addressed.

But one of the strongest arguments in support of the plan came from Stewart Schwartz, head of the regionally-influential Coalition for Smarter Growth. He spoke to lodge his strong support for the novel housing model, congratulating Falls Church for “leading the way” with the first in the region housing model. “It will enhance the community and property values, providing for diversity and reducing the carbon footprint,” he said.

Connelly also stressed the argument made by the developer that the alternative for the site would be four large single family homes that could be built “by right” which would be even more dense than the cottage cluster, in terms of floor-to-area ratios and which would involve no restrictions on parking and no improvements to the Railroad Avenue, itself, which under the cottage plan will tender the approval from the Fairfax Park Authority to grant an easement on its land to widen the street to 16 feet.

Photo courtesy of Falls Church News-Press. Click here to view the original story.