While Frederick does have its share of legitimate traffic problems, residents from all over Frederick County and beyond suffer through a daily grueling commute to and from the D.C. metro area by plodding along, kissing bumpers down Interstate 270 or via a MARC train that putters its way through Point of Rocks into the D.C. metro employment hub.
The governor comes to the rescue
Maryland’s governor, Larry Hogan, recently proposed a widening of the entire I-270 corridor with toll lanes from Shady Grove Road south. His plan also calls for expanding the width of the Capital Beltway (aka Interstate 495). Back in April 2017, Hogan announced the advancement of the I-270 Congestion Relief Project. Earlier this year, the governor’s team announced the plan as the I-495 & I-270 Public-Private Partnership (P3) Program. The plan seemed to have a full head of steam until it hit opposition in D.C. and Montgomery County.
According to a recent Washington Post–Schar School Poll, 61 percent of residents of the D.C. metro area approve of the Hogan plan. Oddly, this poll was conducted in all Maryland and Virginia counties that surround Washington, D.C., as well as Loudoun County, Virginia. It left Frederick County out of the equation, despite the fact that about 33 percent of I-270 traverses the county and a large share of its 50,000 commuters use it daily.
However, it seems that between the somewhat positive 61 percent and opposition from groups that include Our Revolution Maryland and Citizens Against Beltway Expansion, the Governor delayed a scheduled Board of Public Works vote on the “controversial” matter, since State Treasurer Nancy Kropp has voiced serious concerns on the matter.
Concerns over requirements for extensive right-of-way purchases and eminent domain concerns could put the program in court for years.
Meanwhile, those who commute through Frederick County are not holding their breath. They continue to seek new “avenues” for the answers.
Even if the Hogan plan arises intact from the coming political battles, is it the one and only answer to moving 270/495 off the list of the most congested commuter routes in the nation?
Ask 10 different transportation experts, and more than likely you will get 20 different answers.
It may very well be “part” of a solution that over a very long period of construction will for sure create inconvenience on a grand scale to not only commuters, but also to area residents.
The impact of Amazon
In 2016, the Greater Washington Partnership was formed as “a first-of-its-kind civic alliance of CEOs” representing area businesses that collectively employ a labor force of over 200,000 in a region covering Baltimore, Washington, and Richmond to display a unified private sector commitment to attract Amazon to the region.
One of its highest priorities was to improve regional mobility. The alliance spent considerable time, effort and energy to develop a recently released seven-step integrated multimodal plan of Regional Solutions. Steps included modernizing intercity and commuter rail, improving road and trail performance, and creating high-performing public transit, the latter of which covered all the current modes: “local and commuter buses, light rail and subways, commuter rail, vanpools, ferries, and paratransit.”
No question that the GWP report was well thought out and impressive. It seems to layout a very good “road map” for a way forward … and Hogan’s 270/495 P3 proposal was identified as a component of the solution.
Other than that, the report seems to rely on Hogan’s plan and some improvements to MARC train as we know it to improve Frederick County’s problem.
That’s not enough.
Who knows if and when the Hogan plan will ever come to fruition.
In the meantime, many are not convinced that such a plan will work. But with such a sad situation currently in place, just about anything will help. Meanwhile for Frederick County, besides jet packs, commuter planes and helicopters, reinstating barges along the C&O Canal, very long zip lines and “Star Trek’s” fictional transporter, the one option that has been completely left out of any consideration and should now be taken seriously is a monorail.
In the early 1990s, neighboring Montgomery County entertained the concept when it unsuccessfully vied for a grant for a 2¼-mile link between the Grosvenor Metro station and Montgomery Mall in North Bethesda. In 2000, as the traffic congestion intensified, the county’s planning staff asked: Are we looking at all possible modal options for the variety of alignments currently under study in the county?
A year later, the Montgomery County Department of Transportation published the results in a 75-page Monorail Technology Assessment Report conducted by DMJM+HARRIS. In its conclusion, the report stated that “monorail systems should be considered a viable mode or premium transit in future studies in Montgomery County.”
That was very encouraging, but as in most cases after the initial hype, the political powers at the time uploaded the report to a cloud somewhere on the edge of the stratosphere of the World Wide Web, where it has been gathering virtual dust for nearly 20 years.
That was then … this is now
Sometimes it takes an entrepreneur from the private sector to shed new light on an old idea where the technology has advanced tremendously.
It was about a year ago that Robert O. Eisinger, a successful Montgomery County businessman, contacted me about reinvigorating the monorail concept as a means of easing the I-270 gridlock from Frederick.
Like a mad scientist working in his laboratory, Eisinger had been researching, mapping out and planning with a number of people behind the scenes to bring to light how the monorail concept has advanced and can help to solve local transportation challenges.
Not to bore you with details, but for various reasons the United States has never really bought into this mode of transportation until recently. Maybe it’s the videos of the slow-moving Disney monorails that have caused Americans to pigeonhole that image as an inadequate means of moving commuters on a grand scale.
But through Eisinger’s leadership and his newly formed High Road Foundation, a not-for-profit dedicated to bringing monorail to our region, he has almost single-handedly remade the case for why a monorail connection from Frederick to the Shady Grove Metro station will offer a real solution to the larger issue of traffic congestion in the Washington metro area. And now, after reintroducing a true vision of monorail to any number of movers and shakers in Annapolis and throughout the D.C. metro area, he has turned many people into true believers.
Successfully moving the masses around the world — why not here?
According to an assessment from his consultants, the monorail trip between Frederick and Shady Grove, during peak commuter traffic hours, would be under 30 minutes, ferry from 4,000 to 25,000 passengers per hour with stops at six stations and travel at speeds of 65 mph.
“We need to insert another mode of transit into the discussion that would be more reliable, environmentally cleaner, easier and quicker to construct, less expensive than highway lanes and has future expansion built into its design,” Eisinger said. “The alternative is monorail. Monorails may look like a vision for tomorrow, but today they are doing the heavy lifting in urban areas around the world.”
The first real monorail in the U.S. was built in Las Vegas in 2010. But monorails regularly move commuters and passengers in major cities and countries around the world, including Venice, Italy, Sao Paolo, Brazil, and in major urban areas in Asia. A system started in Chongqing, China, in 2005 spans 39 miles and carries in excess of 30,000 people an hour per direction and historically has been carrying over a million passengers each day.
Eisinger’s proposed I-270 monorail would be fully automated and driverless. with state-of-the-art communications, including automatic train control technology. According to a ridership study from the transportation consulting firm Cambridge Systematics, trains would arrive at stations at 3½-minute intervals many hours of the day. The firm proposes that the spur be serviced initially by 17 three-car Skyrail trains.
The system would be designed for expansion as ridership grows to include, potentially, points south of Bethesda and west across the river to Virginia or east along the Intercounty Connector (Md. 200) to the Muirkirk MARC station off U.S. Route 1 in Prince George’s County.
In all cases, the monorail would use the existing rights of way within the bounds of I-270 and others owned by state and local governments, as well as utility public easements.
Economic bonus and relief to U.S. 15
Eisinger has proposed two key station locations in the general area of downtown and another in Urbana, but what about two more on the north side of Frederick?
Consider the new Monocacy Boulevard bridge over U.S. 15 (or Clemson Corner), which could then connect to a station next to Frederick Municipal Airport, which aside from BWI is Maryland’s second-busiest airport for private and corporate planes. Imagine the economic boom that would ignite for corporate flights — fly into Frederick in the morning, and take the monorail then Metro to a meeting in the heart of Washington, D.C.
Everyone in Frederick County has experienced the frustration of driving the north/south loop of U.S. 15 around our fair city. If it’s not a backup due to commuter traffic in the morning or midafternoon, there’s an accident somewhere along the 5½-mile stretch between Monocacy Boulevard and exit 31 on I-270 that jams things up.
While a northern monorail connection would not solve all these problems, there is no question that it surely would ease the burden for many commuters from the north and relieve pressure on that section of the highway.
The U.S. 15 problem is the top transportation priority among the city of Frederick, our county government and the Chamber of Commerce. In every case, the idea is to widen the highway and add more lanes. Such an idea is clearly a vital step to easing a burden. But, as in the case of the forces in Montgomery that are raising opposition to the Hogan 270/495 widening plan, will neighboring property owners to U.S. 15 come out in droves against a plan to acquire more rights of way? If so, how much time and money will it take resolve those issues? Meanwhile, our local traffic problem continues to get worse.
Cost and funding
When asked about the touchy subject of cost, Eisinger says, “Monorail systems are not cheap. They cost much more than bus systems, but they have a life span of over 50 years compared to 10-12 for a BRT and carry 8 times the number of passengers per hour per direction.”
His research has concluded that monorail systems do cost less than light rail systems, considerably less than heavy rail commuter railroads, and much less than underground light rail or subway systems … and they can easily match the number of passengers. According to estimates, this initial 27-mile system would cost about $3.5 billion (an average of $127 million per mile). The estimate to operate the line for the first full year is $28.3 million and would require no public subsidy based on the Cambridge Level 1 Ridership Study.
The Hogan $9 billion widening plan proposes to work on 70 miles of I-270 and all of Maryland’s portion of I-495 … which averages a million dollars a mile more than the cost of monorail. But when the enormous cost and loss of time in having to endure the legal battles of acquiring rights of way and dealing with multiple contractors is factored in, the estimate of the Hogan plan is likely low.
With no right-of-way acquisition time and cost and the limited number of contractors associated with the Eisinger plan, the costs have a better likelihood of staying on budget, and the time to construct would surely move at lightning speed compared with the Hogan plan for I-270.
The big question is whether Frederick County can get behind this idea. Eisinger has met with Mayor Michael O’Connor as well as County Executive Jan Gardner and received favorable feedback.
There will be skeptics, but it is time to realize that our region’s future is upon and more need to take notice.
The D.C. metro region, like so many major metropolitan areas around the world, is seeking new ways to manage the problem of traffic and congestion … or better stated Improve Regional Mobility, as framed by the Greater Washington Partnership. There are many technological advancements on the horizon which will surely bring new options to addressing this issue.
The Eisinger monorail proposal has taken an old idea and, with technological advancement, has made it cutting edge. It’s time to take it seriously.