WASHINGTON – When Margie Weaver accepted a job in North Bethesda, she didn’t think much about driving 42 miles from her home in Unionville to her workplace – until a trip she thought would take her about 45 minutes took up to two and a half hours in traffic on Interstate 270.
“When you add that (commute) on to an eight-, nine-hour day, you’re 14 hours away from home,” Weaver said.
Because she needed her car for work, Weaver had no choice but to drive each day. She tried to change her schedule to avoid peak travel times, but eventually quit her job after about a year to work closer to home. Now Weaver helps link Frederick drivers with others who share similar commutes and helps residents plan routes that reduce the amount of time behind the wheel.
Interstate 270 is typical of the 65 percent of Maryland interstate highways that are congested, according to a study compiled by the Maryland chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers. Major improvements to ease traffic congestion on the highway are years from completion or have been put on hold. Decreased revenue projections and the state’s use of transportation funds for other purposes have delayed the more expensive options and forced planners to devise cheaper alternatives.
“We’ve fallen way behind on our infrastructure plans,” said Richard Parsons, board member of the Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance.
The Maryland chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the state’s roads and transitways a C- rating in its 2011 report on the state’s infrastructure that came out in March. A key factor in the rating was inadequate funding for planned projects.
“It is critical that funding for capital improvement projects be increased,” the study concluded. “Failure to do so will continue to result in costly roadway repairs and reconstruction and increase time delays for Maryland residents.”
Maryland is doing better than the country on average, which received Ds for roads and transit in the same ASCE report.
The Maryland State Highway Administration and the Maryland Transit Administration have been working since the mid-1990s on developing a combination of road and transit improvements to Interstate 270 to improve traffic flow. When the first public hearings were held in 1997, average daily traffic on the interstate south of Interstate 70 was 83,750 vehicles. In 2012, average daily traffic in the same area was 103,960 vehicles, a nearly 25 percent increase.
The Maryland Transit Administration and the Maryland State Highway Administration conducted a multi-modal study on the 30-mile highway that presented five different options to add lanes. Expanding the highway was put on hold in 2011 in favor of transit options after the study estimated the cost at up to $5 billion.
The Corridor Cities Transitway, a rapid-bus system, began as a branch of the multi-modal study and became an independent project when highway lane expansion was abandoned. The first phase of the project will stretch from the Shady Grove Metro Station to the MARC Metropolitan Grove Station with nine stations in between.
The rapid bus transit system could ease traffic congestion on the lower portion of I-270 since buses will have designated lanes and would only interact with traffic at intersections.
“Regardless of how congested the roads become, the transitway will be able to maintain its travel speeds,” said Rick J. Kiegel, project manager for the Corridor Cities Transitway.
Relief for travelers, however, is years away. The first phase of the project, which would link the MARC Metropolitan Grove Station with the Shady Grove Metro Station, is expected to be completed by 2020. The completed transitway will stretch to the COMSAT Laboratories in Germantown, but there is no set timeline for this second phase. The plan is to wait for that area to increase in density, Kiegal said.
But even a completed transitway will make little dent in the problem, Kiegel said. “The reality is that I-270 carries such a large volume of traffic that one transit system is not going to have a significant impact.”
The Maryland State Highway Administration has focused on improving segments of Interstate 270. A project to construct a new interchange at the Watkins Mill Road Extended would provide access from I-270 to the MARC Metropolitan Grove Road Station. Partial engineering is still underway, with the right-of-way construction to begin later this fiscal year.
With the passage of the Transportation Infrastructure Investment Act in Maryland, Parsons is more optimistic that some of the state’s stalled transportation projects will resume.
“I’m feeling optimistic for the first time in a long time,” Parsons said.
The bill passed by the General Assembly in March would increase the gas tax by up to 5 percent by 2016. The legislation would bring an estimated $4.4 billion to the Maryland Department of Transportation. The gas tax has not been increased since 1992.
A pilot program is underway for “bus-on-shoulder” lanes along Interstate 270. The Maryland State Highway Administration is studying how to create shoulder lanes that can withstand bus traffic. Buses would use the shoulder lanes when highway traffic slows to a particular speed. A similar project is underway in Virginia to improve shoulders for buses on Interstate 66 inside the Beltway that could be completed as soon as next year.
While Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance Chairman Doug Duncan said that “bus-on-shoulder” lanes are a good idea in the short term, the highway needs transit with a dedicated lane. “Long term I think you need to look towards separate bus lanes,” Duncan said.
Weaver had what she considers the best solution: move closer to work. Although she now lives 15 miles from her workplace, Weaver has put her house up for sale, and hopes to find a home even closer to work so that she can start commuting by bike. “I’m finding that it is just so much better of a lifestyle.”