As preparations and planning continue for the construction of toll lanes along part of Interstate 270 in an effort to ease congestion on the highway, a local group hopes to persuade the Frederick County Council to oppose the plan in favor of trying to bring more transit options to Frederick.
The group Trains Not Tolls has an online petition asking the council to list expanded MARC service as a top priority in the county’s next transportation priorities letter to the state.
Increased MARC traffic was part of the state’s most recent letter, but not one of its top three priorities.
The group hopes to get between 300 and 400 signatures by the end of the summer, and persuade the council to at least talk about opposing the state’s plan, said Frank Cantwell, one of its members.
They would like the state to use some of the projected costs between $9 billion and $11 billion of the toll project to improve MARC train service to Frederick. The state’s Board of Public Works designated the project as a public-private partnership earlier this month.
In the so-called P3 designation, the toll lanes would be designed, built and operated by a private company, with the state getting some of the revenue from tolls.
Under the state’s current plan, the bottom section of I-270, from near Shady Grove to Interstate 495, would be built first. The section from Interstate 370 to Interstate 70 would follow.
The Board of Public Works would still need to approve contracts for the work on those sections, along with a final decision from the National Environmental Policy Act process.
Under amendments approved by the Board of Public Works, transit buses would be able to use the toll lanes free of charge, and the state’s Department of Transportation will study the feasibility of a monorail system as part of the project. Ten percent of the state’s toll revenue sharing would go toward funding for regional transit projects.
According to a letter from the Maryland Department of Transportation to the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board, the department will spend the next few months repackaging the solicitation paperwork for a request for qualifications for the first phase of the project.
A pamphlet that Trains Not Tolls members plan to distribute at MARC stations and other commuter areas alerts riders to the petition and warns that a plan to build the first part of the project between I-495 and I-370 near the Shady Grove Metro station would only add to congestion as the increased traffic gets to the point near Clarksburg where the highway drops to two lanes.
For less than the cost of the toll lanes, “Maryland could build a third track on the MARC rail line between Frederick and D.C.” that would allow traffic back and forth all day.
But the possibility of increased traffic lies largely with the freight company CSX, which owns the tracks on which MARC’s Brunswick Line operates.
The Trains Not Tolls Group is advocating for an additional track from Point of Rocks to Boyds, in Montgomery County, for which the state would need to work out an agreement with CSX, Cantwell said.
County Councilman Kai Hagen said that while he doesn’t see much appetite from his colleagues for taking up the issue, he thinks the petition is worth doing.
Hagen has been an outspoken opponent of the toll plan, which he believes has numerous risks and problems, and is based on a model that will likely lead to high costs for the tolls once the lanes are built.
Council President M.C. Keegan-Ayer said recently that it’s encouraging that Gov. Larry Hogan (R) is looking into transit options such as a potential monorail system or transit bus options, but she still had questions about the cost of the project, the price of tolls, and other issues.
Council Vice President Michael Blue said that while he believes toll lanes are part of the solution, they’re not the only solution.
Advocates for more transit options rather than toll lanes would like the county to ask the state to go back and study I-270 as a single unit, rather than separating it into sections from the Capital Beltway to I-370, and from I-370 to I-70 in Frederick, said Ben Ross, chairman of the statewide Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition. His group is affiliated with Trains Not Tolls.
Ross’ group would like the state to study the possibility of toll lanes on all of I-270, increased MARC service, and the recently suggested idea of adding a monorail to run up I-270.
A study would let people examine all three options at once, and argue their different opinions from a common set of information, he said.
The state’s current plan of widening the southern part of the highway first makes no sense, and adding rail is an alternative to widening I-270, Ross said.
The state would have to work out a third track with CSX, but the company has been open to other projects elsewhere, he said.
But state officials say the toll lanes project wouldn’t preclude increased transit use.
“As we have shared during the recent public workshops and in briefing various communities since, each of the six managed lanes alternatives retained for detailed study hold potential benefits for improved transit services within the I-495 and I-270 study area,” Jeffrey Folden, deputy director of the I-495 and I-270 P3 Program, said in an email Wednesday. “If a build alternative is selected for this study, public buses will be allowed to use managed lanes for free, enhancing transit mobility and connectivity and providing a less congested and more reliable route for bus transit. Direct and indirect access to existing transit stations and planned transit-oriented developments will also be included at Greenbelt, New Carrollton, Branch Avenue, Silver Spring, and Shady Grove Metro stations.”