The idea for a monorail system between Frederick and Montgomery counties as part of a plan to relieve congestion on Interstate 270 is gaining momentum, according to public officials and business representatives.
Initially seen by some as a curiosity when it was announced in the spring, the proposal is getting a second look as the General Assembly begins its session Wednesday.
Gaining support for the proposal is still an uphill battle, but the idea is gaining traction, said Bob Eisinger, the Montgomery County developer who came up with the plan.
“It is getting much more serious,” he said Tuesday.
An agenda item expected to be passed by the state’s Board of Public Works on Wednesday for a plan to add toll lanes to I-270 in Frederick, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties includes language announcing that work is underway on a study to look at the monorail proposal’s feasibility.
A draft of the feasibility study is expected in the early spring, with a final report expected in May.
Acting Transportation Secretary Greg Slater hailed the monorail plan as a “really, really interesting proposal.”
Slater said the state is looking at other areas where monorails have been successful, to get an idea of what the practicality could be for the I-270 project.
The fact that it’s included in the I-270 proposal signals that the state wants to take a closer look at the project, said Rick Weldon, president and CEO of the Frederick County Chamber of Commerce and a former state delegate.
Weldon planned to testify at Wednesday’s BPW hearing about the chamber’s support for the project’s potential as an alternative to adding capacity on I-270.
“We are enthusiastically supporting it,” Weldon said.
While it remains to be seen whether the proposal is financially feasible, it deserves to be studied further, he said.
Eisinger gave a presentation to the chamber’s Transportation Advisory Committee in June, and to the Rotary Club of Frederick later in the summer.
Rotary members were also impressed by the idea, said president Mark Lancaster, who called the presentation one of the best the group received all year.
You could tell by the questions Eisinger received that members were intrigued by the plan, he said.
Eisinger estimates the cost of building the 28-mile stretch between Frederick and the Shady Grove Metro station at $3.4 billion.
The plan to add toll lanes to I-270 and I-495 in Frederick, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties is estimated to cost about $11 billion.
According to a report released by Eisinger’s High Road Foundation in March, the monorail would reach speeds of up to 70 mph between stations, and make the trip from Frederick to Shady Grove in approximately 31 minutes.
It would have stations at Frederick, Urbana, the COMSAT facility in northern Montgomery County, Germantown, Metropolitan Grove and Shady Grove, with connections to MARC’s Brunswick Line at Metropolitan Grove and Metro’s Red Line at Shady Grove.
With plans to be built within the I-270 right of way, the plan has the benefit of not having to acquire more land through northern Montgomery County’s Agricultural Reserve and around Monocacy National Battlefield south of the city of Frederick, Weldon said.
The right-of-way issue, as well as the environmental impact of removing cars burning fossil fuels while stuck on I-270, are some of the things that have attracted Del. David Fraser-Hidalgo (D-Montgomery) to the project.
Fraser-Hidalgo, who chairs the Motor Vehicle and Transportation subcommittee in the House Environment and Transportation Committee, represents a district in northern Montgomery County with many constituents who make their way down I-270.
“I think it is very deserving of a shot,” he said.
The ability to build the tracks on poles in the I-270 right of way also decreases the project’s footprint of impervious surfaces such as asphalt and concrete, he said.
While Fraser-Hidalgo said he always thought the plan had promise, others he talked to were initially skeptical.
“Now, I do think it’s getting a more reasonable look,” he said.
Fraser-Hidalgo’s Montgomery County colleague Del. Kumar Barve (D), who chairs the Environment and Transportation Committee, said his committee will hold a briefing on the monorail proposal in the early weeks of the session to look at the pluses and minuses of the plan.
The proposal needs no new rights of way, can be constructed faster than adding more lanes to I-270, and can run in all kinds of weather — all compelling reasons to take it seriously, Barve said.
Monorail systems in other parts of the world do well in areas with concentrated populations, like the I-270 corridor, he said.
Barve said some old-fashioned transportation planners may roll their eyes at the monorail proposal.
“I don’t think that does the public justice,” he said.
And for the residents of his district in Gaithersburg and Rockville, anything that takes cars off the road is a good thing.
While I-270 may still need more lanes added, all options need to be examined and the monorail needs more exploration, Lancaster said.
And its visibility to drivers stuck in traffic on I-270 could make the monorail zipping overhead look like a more attractive option.
“You start to think, well, maybe that could be me,” he said.